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"What's The Smoke For" is a page that will explain Catholic Customs, Liturgy, Diversity and Inclusivity, Architecture and Art, Liturgical Furniture and Objects, Liturgical Posture’s and Gestures, Liturgical Praxis, Liturgical Prayers and Devotions, Liturgical Theology, Liturgical Vesture and the Liturgical Year. We hope it will make understanding the Catholic faith easier.

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Dear Johan,

              Would you please settle an argument I am having with my wife: did St. Francis invent the nativity scene or did he not?​


Gentle Reader

            I am all for settling arguments, especially between spouses. I cannot but wonder who will come out on the winning end.

Saint Francis is often credited with the initiation of such popular devotions as the Stations of the Cross and the nativity scene. Though it is true that this medieval saint and his enthusiastic followers popularized these devotions, he did not really invent them.

Among some of the oldest depictions of the nativity are a third-century fresco in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla and a fourth-century stone carving on a Roman sarcophagus now housed in a church in Milan. Since those early depictions, the nativity has been ubiquitously frescoed onto church walls, carved into cathedral portals, and painted in prayer books.

The novelty of the nativity scene organized by St. Francis was that it was a living nativity scene and thus it was three-dimensional. According to his biographer, St. Bonaventure, Francis staged his first live nativity scene in the town of Greccio, Italy, in 1223.

Francis’s special devotion to the nativity scene had two basic reasons. On the one hand, he was inspired by a trip to the Holy Land, when he realized that one did not have to be there to celebrate the important moments in the life of Jesus. With the help of art one could do that fruitfully anywhere in the world. On the other hand, his devotion was encouraged by his disappointment with the celebration of Christmas in his homeland. Using the nativity scene, he wanted to refocus his contemporaries’ attention on the reason for the celebration of Christmas. Doesn’t that sound like a familiar problem?

Having received the papal blessing, the custom of live nativities spread with the Franciscans throughout the continent. Elaborate reenactments of the story of the nativity developed as a great teaching tool, especially for the illiterate masses. As with many good things, these well-intentioned reenactments quickly started overshadowing the celebration of Christmas. As a result, they were abolished and the live scenes were replaced with statues. These gradually made their way from church yards and portals into our homes.

So, let’s say you are both correct. Though Francis did not invent the nativity scene, he was very important in its popularization.


© 2015 Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota. Excerpted from What’s the Smoke For? And Other Burning Questions about the Liturgy by Johan van Parys © 2014 Order of Saint Benedict, published by Liturgical Press, www.litpress.org. Used by permission.