My Irish grandmother used to usher myself and my sister into her room at Christmas to show off her nativity set. There was the crib of Jesus centre stage, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, three kings and a couple of animals gazing on. But what is the origin of the Christmas nativity?
Well, it appears to have originated during the Templar period. The problem with Christmas was that it was essentially a Christian takeover of the traditional winter solstice festivities. Pagan-style feasting and merriment continued under a Christian guise – but this wasn’t good enough for some Catholics.
Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century was determined to re-invigorate Christian belief. One of his targets was Christmas. He watched with some displeasure at how it was celebrated and resolved to re-focus things on the birth of Jesus. So, it was Francis who created the first nativity scene – with oxen and donkey in attendance.
Francis had a thing about animals, believing they could be preached to. And there appears to have been a widespread view that at Christmas, animals even acquired the ability to speak! This power came to cows and sheep because they were in the presence of Jesus. It was even thought that bees hummed the 100th psalm in their hives at Christmas.
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The first nativity scene was unveiled by Francis in 1223 in the Italian town of Greccio. It appears to have been life sized and an instant hit with the faithful. And it’s basically coloured our view ever since of what the birth of Jesus actually looked like.