Many of us cherish the hand carved Italian wooden nativity with its crèche and hanging angel given to us as a gift, or a large Fontanini Nativity we bought when we first got married. Maybe you have a burnished gold one piece nativity passed down through the family or you have your eye on a stained glass nativity. During the holiday season our yard is bedecked with a beautiful, illuminated larger than life nativity. Now, we might think this tradition goes all the way back to the first Christmas in Bethlehem so many years ago. You may be surprised to learn that the tradition actually began with Saint Francis of Assissi:
In the early part of the thirteenth century Saint Francis of Assisi was troubled by the lack of holiness in the holiday season. There was a lot of drunkenness and desire. The fact that God came to earth as a man seemed to be lost in the preparations for the feasting and merry making.
As Francis often did when he was troubled, he went to a cave on Mount Subasio and prayed. In his solitude an answer came to him: he remembered the humble birth of our Lord. Saint Francis came up with a plan to remind people of the real reason we celebrate Christmas.
For weeks he prepared. Three of the monks were dressed as Kings. Other monks would come as shepherds. A farmer agreed to loan him a donkey, a cow, chickens and sheep. He found a carpenter to portray Joseph and a beautiful young maiden to portray Mary.
It was Christmas Eve and everything was set. He chose a cave on the edge of the village of Greccio because it reminded him of the biblical description of the manger. Even in his own time Saint Francis was well known. When word went out that he had arranged a special celebration of Christmas, people came from far and near.
(Imagine now that you are standing on the side of this hill, near the cave. It is just past sunset and the light is fading from a rose colored sky. Looking out over the valley you see hundreds of people gathering. Some are carrying torches, others candles. Each person carries their own light. From each home and village a stream of light flows towards the cave. These streams of light gather into a river of lights. Soon, a flood of light flows up the hill to the mouth of the cave. Each of us brings our own small light to make an ocean of light.)
Just as everyone arrived, Saint Francis realized that he had forgotten something. The shepherds and sheep were there, so were the three kings and their horses. There was a donkey, a cow and some chickens sleeping or scratching in the straw. Mary and Joseph were there. How could he? He had forgotten the most important thing! Saint Francis had forgotten the baby!
Just then he saw a spark in the straw. At first he thought the spark had leapt from a candle or torch, Saint Francis leapt to put it out. But then it took shape. A small ball of fire began to grow and softly glow. Right before the eyes of a thousand seekers, the glowing light took the shape of an infant. For the second time, God came to earth as a child. Everyone present witnessed a miracle.
Francis could not let the baby rest on the cold stone floor of the cave. He scooped the Christ child up into his arms and cuddled him. It dawned on him then and there, the true meaning of Christmas.
God came to earth not as a king but as the child of a poor carpenter. He was not born in a palace but in a manger among animals. Saint Francis realized God is there to take care of us, yes, but we also must nurture that of God within.
Though chaste, in that moment Saint Francis gave birth. For a moment he knew the pleasure of fatherhood. He also gained a deeper appreciation of our Father and his infinite wisdom. What a blessing for us all!
And so it has been to this day: throughout the world we celebrate the birth of Christ with the celebration of the nativity, an idea inspired by a poor man from Assisi.
Do you have a special nativity that you place near the tree at Christmas?
Whether your nativity set is table top or garden statues, when you arrange the decorations on your mantel or in your front yard think of Saint Francis and this story, the first celebration of the nativity. And maybe, just as they do in Italy, you may wish to set the kings and camels at a distance on the first night and inch them closer each day to remind us of that journey we all must make to be nearer to God. Keep the baby Jesus under wraps and place Him in the manger on Christmas Eve to remind us of the real reason for the holiest of seasons.
*This traditional story is based on the medieval book, “The Little Flowers of Saint Francis” and is retold by Brian “Fox” Ellis, author and storyteller. © 2008 All rights reserved. www.foxtalesint.com