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What is the “crèche” or Nativity or manger scene used at Christmastime? How did it originate?

txt-CrecheNativityScene-FrVSCrèche is the French term for a Nativity, manger, or crib scene. Today it is common to have a crèche in the church during the Christmas season. Many Christian families also have crèches in their homes or on their front lawn as the focal point of their Christmas decorations. In some localities, crèches are put on display in the town square, a park, or some other public place.

A crèche is a miniature, three-dimensional representation of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem on the first Christmas night. It combines all of the characters in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Infancy Narratives (Mt 1:1-2:23 and Lk 1:5-2:52). The figurines include the infant Jesus; Mary and Joseph; an angel or choirs of angels; the shepherds; and the three Magi, astrologers, or wise men. It is common to include a variety of animals, usually an ox and a donkey (Is 1:3a), often one or a few sheep, and sometimes a sheepdog or a camel. The other most important elements of the set are a manger with a bed of straw or wheat, the stable or cave, and the Star of Bethlehem hovering aloft.

Customs vary from place to place about when to place certain figurines in the set. Some arrange all of the figurines from the outset. Others add the infant Jesus on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and some add the Magi on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.

St. Francis of Assisi is most responsible for the popularization and promotion of the crèche. He spent Christmas of 1223 in Grecchio, Italy, where he preached Midnight Mass. He told a friend, “I would make a memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with bodily eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and ass standing by” (Thurston, H. J., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. IV, 29). On that Christmas Francis used a simple crib scene as a prop to reflect upon the mystery of the Incarnation: a straw-filled manger flanked by a live donkey and a live ox.

Nativity scenes were in use long before 1223, but St. Francis gave the practice much attention and great energy. Subsequently, Franciscans carried Francis’ story wherever they went, and crèches became increasingly popular across Italy, throughout Europe, and eventually around the world, both as a prop for preaching and a decoration for Christmas. Also, it became customary to add a more complete cast of characters around the manger.

About Father Michael Van Sloun 

Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.

© 2008, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.