With all the commercialism surrounding Christmastime, it’s far too easy for us to lose sight of the true reason behind the season. Overwhelmed by our endless to-do lists and the hustle and bustle of last-minute shopping, our focus quickly shifts away from the Christ Child’s birth. And yet, hidden amongst the holly wreaths and garlands, the Christmas Nativity remains a tangible reminder of the Incarnation, pulling us back into time for a moment as we reflect upon the incredible gift of Christ’s birth.
Interestingly, it was circumstances much like our own today that first led St. Francis of Assisi to recreate the Nativity scene nearly 800 years ago. Frustrated with the growing materialism and greed that seemed to pervade 13th-century Italy, St. Francis wanted a way to visually remind people of Christ’s humble beginnings — to show them that Christmas isn’t about pomp and circumstance or material goods, but rather about unselfish love. Describing the idea to his friend Giovanni, St. Francis wrote, “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger…”
And so St. Francis’ idea took form on Christmas Eve in 1223. This original Nativity scene was a living one, even including live animals. Villagers were deeply moved by the silent display of humble beauty, and the Nativity tradition soon spread throughout Italy and surrounding Europe. It is a tradition that remains today in nearly every Christian church and in many homes. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Christmas without a Nativity scene somewhere.
Coming in various sizes and styles, each Nativity replica continues to focus our hearts on the true meaning of Christmas — to help us remember that Christmas isn’t about the amount of gifts under the tree or the festive decorations, but rather about celebrating Christ’s birth. Many families have a tradition of hiding the Infant Jesus, only placing Him in the crib on Christmas morning. This helps build anticipation during the Advent season as we anxiously await the Divine’s birth. Others go a step further, actually wrapping up the Christ Child to be opened as the very first gift of Christmas.
Yet, whatever your family’s particular traditions, we hope that the Christmas Nativity continues to draw your heart heavenward this Christmas season — to center us all on the greatest gift ever given, our Incarnate Lord.