As the Christmas season rolls around each December, re-creations of the first Nativity begin to appear. The smaller celebratory displays—also called manger scenes or crèches—might be placed on mantles or beneath Christmas trees.
The larger ones are best set up outdoors for all to enjoy. These displays range in size and complexity from simple, smaller models to elaborate, life-size Nativity sets.
For pure gigantic, larger-than-life-size spectacle, however, it’s hard to beat Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, the masterpiece of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. One entire towering section of the basilica, aptly named the “Nativity Façade,” fairly overflows with images of organic life of all types. It also features scenes from the life of Jesus. In one part are statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and angels; on one side of them is a sculptural group representing the adoration of the shepherds and, on the other, the three wise men (detail featured at the beginning of this article).
Yet it might surprise readers to know that the first “modern” realization of the concept of a life-size Nativity display was created by St. Francis of Assisi in Greccio, Italy. He was inspired to share his vision of the birth of Christ by creating a tableau vivant (“living picture”) depicting that near-mythical Christmas scene.
St. Francis’s Re-creation of the Nativity
Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone was born into a well-to-do family in 1181 or 1182 in the Italian town of Assisi. He was an outgoing young man who enjoyed the various worldly delights money that could offer. After he took part in a war between Assisi and Perugia, however, he was captured and held in prison for nearly a year. It was then his life took a major shift. He had a dream that urged him to return to Assisi for a new kind of “knighthood.” There, he dedicated his life to Christ, with a vow of poverty and humility.
Soon he began to wander and preach, attracting devoted followers as he went. On his way to the Holy Land for a pilgrimage in 1223, St. Francis and his followers spent time in the town of Greccio. Catholic churches of the period often exhibited elegant paintings of the birth of Jesus, but St. Francis was inspired to bring to life this holy event for ordinary people—something solemn, simple, and reverent. Although the Christmas story is only mentioned twice in the New Testament books of Luke and Matthew, and with little detail to go on, St. Francis had an ingenious vision.
Borrowing a donkey and an ox, Francis found an empty cave nearby and, on Christmas Eve, set up the first life-size Nativity scene. He placed a manger filled with hay in the cave, added the animals, and invited the townspeople to come and behold what it must have been like that first Christmas.
According to St. Bonaventure, one of St. Francis’s followers, “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”
Word of this display spread far and wide. Soon nearly every church in Italy offered their own version of a “life-sized Nativity set” on church grounds during the Christmas season. Over time this tradition spread across Europe and the rest of the world.
Life-size Nativity Sets Today: a Reverent Celebration
If you, a neighbor, or your place of worship owns a life-size Nativity set, you know why they continue to be popular: they are stirring reminders of the holiness and reason for the season. Some are portrayed by living people and animals, usually as part of a church, theater, or community celebration. And well-crafted life-size sets and figures are often found in front of homes and churches. Some are simple and some are elegant, yet all capture the reverence and peace of this beautiful time of year.