What's a Crèche?

By Phyllis Kidwell

One story says that St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) was inspired by a trip to Jesus’ birthplace in 1223. Back in Italy, where St. Francis was from, the story of Christ’s birth was being told each year during Catholic mass in a language unfamiliar to most people—Latin. St. Francis pondered that, and felt that the humble birth of Jesus Christ was being usurped and overly complicated by the overabundance of the season.

So St. Francis had an idea. He decided to use animals to make the story come to life in a cave outside the town of Greccio, Italy. He made a living nativity scene, otherwise known as a crèche, using a donkey and an ox and a manger filled with hay. These animals were used, perhaps, to represent the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, and the set was developed using the gospel texts from both Matthew and Luke. St. Francis set up the scene in the cave and told the story of Christ's birth in the common dialect as people walked by. According to tradition, St. Francis was so overcome in the telling that he couldn't utter the name of Jesus, calling him instead simply the babe of Bethlehem.

After this first showing, living nativity scenes, or crèche, gained a popularity which continues today. They began to include the characters of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus as well as inn keepers, angels, shepherds, and the three kings, or wise men—although the number of wise men sometimes varies. Generally the number is three to reference the gifts presented to the baby Jesus when they followed the star to find the Christ child. Their names were Gaspar, Melchior, and “old" Balthazar, and they gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and oil of myrrh.

We use nativity scenes in this country in our public spaces, our homes, and churches. Some people collect them and display entire collections in their homes. They collect crèche from other countries, made of any number of materials. The word crèche itself, a French word, now means this nativity scene. It can also be used to define a home for foundlings.

Perhaps when we see a crèche this year, we will stop and remember all the Christmases long ago: the one in Italy in 1223 and—most importantly—the first Christmas Eve and the welcoming of our Savior.