Nativity scenes have not escaped controversy. In the United States, nativity scenes on public lands and in public buildings have provoked court challenges. As we head into the Christmas season, once again, those mangers are creating adverse attention around the country. Even in Santa Monica, California where I spent much of my youth, the manger in the public park has been banned.
But where did the idea of the manger scene come from?
It was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, one of my favorite historical characters of the Christian faith. St Francis (Francesco) was a man who moved cultural consciousness, (esp in the form of tenderness and compassion) forward. He was a man of God who had a wonderful affinity and love for God’s creatures.The most known image of him is probably him holding a sparrow in his palm. St. Francis also took a vow of poverty, remained in bare feet so he could always remember humility, and prayed ceaselessly.
It was his great love and respect for animals, however, (and God, of course) that drove the modern-day nativity scene.
As the multi-sourced story goes, Francis was visiting a friend in Greccio, Italy in 1223. At that time, Francis was well-known, even though he never sought fame. So he was going to preach the Christmas sermon in the small chapel in Greccio . Because of his fame, the chapel would not support all those who were coming. So Francis elected to hold the midnight Christmas mass outdoors!
He also thought being outdoors was a wonderful way to reflect on the night Jesus was born. He used a nearby cave as the manger where he placed a baby Jesus, made of paraffin, in a trough. All the other players were animals. He convinced a local farmer to allow him to borrow some sheep, goats and cows
So as the villagers from Greccio watched, Francis spoke of the humble circumstances in which the Christ was born as he walked among the animals and the representative of the baby Jesus. This sermon using a live nativity scene was highly successful. Many of the villagers realized for the first time that this was a king who had not come in a chariot to conquer, but in a manger to love.
In later years, of course, Joseph and Mary were added, as well as the “wise men”.Different countries developed their own traditions with nativity scenes. Small hand-painted terracotta figures called santons are popular in Provence, France. In southern Germany, Austria and northern Italy figurines are hand-cut in wood. Polish szopka incorporate a historical building into the scenes.