It is not popularly known that the creche and its popularity originated with St. Francis. He was traveling to Grecio in 1223 to celebrate Christmas there. However, he realized that the small chapel would not be big enough for all of the people coming to Midnight Mass. So, he found a cut out space in the rock at the town square and set up the altar. St. Bonaventure, a great Franciscan, tells the story like this in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi:
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed.St. Bonaventure
He goes on to describe the miracle of that night:
A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.St. Bonaventure
Many believe that St. Francis also wanted people to be able to see a representation of what the original manger scene looked like. All the people of the town processed to the rock with candles, singing. Many, like the quote above mentions, saw the infant in the manger come to life (even though it was probably a figure). Imagine what this first creche scene must have looked like? It is amazing how nice it is to see something re-presented before our eyes (maybe this is why the Mass is so beautiful and grace-filled!)
The Creche Today
Before Francis began this devotion to the creche, some in The Church had performed Christmas plays and replicated the stable at Bethlehem. However, St. Francis’ creche was the tradition that spread quickly throughout Europe. The different creche scenes popped up everywhere, in Catholic and Protestant homes, and today it’s the same. Who knew that St. Francis’ first “Live Nativity” would spark such a great devotion to mantle manger scenes and lawn decorations?