The nativity scene tradition has become a true artistic expression. There are orthodox and heterodox nativity scenes worthy of admiration for their level of detail and complexity, not to mention the exquisite craftsmanship of some of their figures.
Where does it come from? When did we start representing the events surrounding the birth of Jesus in our homes and churches? The truth is that it is an ancient practice. It was born in Italy in the 13th century, and its promoter was Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and veterinarians. Thomas of Celano, a saint’s contemporary and his hagiographer, tells us that, at the end of 1223, St. Francis, wishing to give a lesson in humility and simplicity through a representation of the Nativity of the Child God, asked a nobleman from the Tuscan town of Greccio to take charge of such work.
Giovanni Vellita, the nobleman, agrees to his request and on December 24th of that year he recreates the scene in a grotto or stable with an ox, a donkey, a carving representing the Baby Jesus, a young couple playing Mary and Joseph, and a group of peasants playing the shepherds, Magi, and angels. Seeing his wishes come true and completely excited, Celano tells how, with the carving of the Baby Jesus in his arms and while preaching to the crowd, St. Francis brought the carving to life with his faith. The news of the miracle spread like wildfire, feeding the devotion of the people. From then on, the nativity scene was considered as another means to worship God. Later, Franciscans and Poor Clares would “make it fashionable” in the rest of Christendom.
The oldest known nativity scene (completely made up of figures) is that of the monastery of Füssen in Germany (1252).
The nativity scene in Alicante has achieved the Guinness World Record in 2020 for being the largest in the world, reaching 56 meters high.
The Franciscan miracle is still evoked in the Rooster’s Masses when people embrace and kiss the Child Jesus figure. Thus, just as the Italian saint did, they try to give life to the carving through their love and faith.