Past notes: nativities
Who set up the first crib?
According to St Bonaventure, who wrote his ‘official biography’, it was Francis of Assisi. In 1223, inspired by the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth, St Francis got permission from Pope Honorius III to set up a manger with hay and a live ox and ass in a cave near the Italian hilltop village of Greccio. He then invited the locals to come to view the scene while he preached to them. The idea caught on and spread throughout Europe.
Were any miracles associated with St Francis’s crib?
Yes. Visions of the Virgin and child were reported, and it was claimed that the hay around the manger miraculously acquired the power to cure cattle diseases.
When did nativity scenes start to include people?
When Francis made his crib, the medieval church was already incorporating nativity plays into its Christmas ritual, although these were glittering affairs, far removed from the humble simplicity of Francis’s creation. Canons dressed as shepherds would process down the nave to an image of the Virgin and child. The adoration of the Magi was also re-enacted, with splendidly dressed kings guided to the altar by a candlelit star. As time went on, cribs became more populated – sometimes with real-life actors, sometimes with figures.
It was under a Franciscan, Pope Nicholas IV, that the first known permanent nativity scene was created. In 1288, he commissioned Arnolfo di Cambio to create a series of statues for a scene in the crypt of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
How accurate are our cribs and nativity plays?
Biblically speaking, the traditional scene of Jesus, Mary and Joseph attended by shepherds, wise men and a selection of curious animals isn’t very accurate at all. Only two of the gospels describe the nativity, with Luke mentioning the shepherds and Matthew the Magi, who arrive some time after the birth. Neither talk about the presence of any animals. But don’t tell that to a harassed primary-school teacher looking to find parts in their play for a classroom of five-year olds!
A nativity play by pupils of Netherton nursery school in 1932