HISTORY OF THE CHRISTMAS CRECHE: ORIGIN OF THE MANGER SCENE
One of the most enduring Christmas traditions is setting up a creche during the Advent season. A creche is a model of the scene of the Manger on the first Christmas at Bethlehem. A creche can be a small model set up in the home or a large scene at a town square, church, or lawn.
Creche in Europe
The word crèche is the French word for a manger.
- Several years ago, I was in Paris at Notre Dame Cathedral. On display in the cathedral was a large creche that featured a miniature scene of the village of Bethlehem, pictured below. This extended for about 50 feet, much larger than the small display that typically appears on a tabletop or yard.
- The following week I was in Brussels, in the Grand Place town square, where an “actual size” manger display was displayed in the city center in front of the Town Hall.
Origin of the Creche
The French word comes from the Italian word greccio. Greccio was the town where the first manger scene was set up by St. Francis of Assisi in Italy in 1223. Some say he did this as an alternative for pilgrims wanting to go to Bethlehem, which the Turks then occupied.
Before that time, many churches had built nativity scenes, but these early mangers were covered with gold, silver, and jewels. Francis thought they were much fancier than the original manger where the Christ child was laid. He wanted to reenact the scene of the first Nativity as a solemn and joyous occasion “lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty.”
I was in the town of Assisi several years ago. The house Francis was born in is now a large church (see the photo below.)
Creche in Italy
Francis wanted people to remember that Jesus was laid in a humble manger. Francis had gotten permission from Pope Honorius III. He asked a nobleman friend of his to help by bringing two live animals — an ox and a donkey — along with a manger and some straw to a nearby cave.
On Christmas Eve, Francis and the people of Greccio met in this cave. St. Bonaventure, in his biography of Francis, recorded the saint’s words:
“For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs.”
At midnight by candlelight, they acted out the story of Jesus’ birth. Francis hoped that this would encourage people to remember the gift of God to men as the child born in a manger, and not all the materialistic gifts exchanged. Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion as he preached that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”
Three hundred years later, Martin Luther had his children open their presents on Christmas Eve to keep Christmas Day itself special to remember the Christ child.
What day do you open Christmas presents?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian