Why do people put up creches at Christmastime?


So far I’ve stayed out of the “white Santa” and “white Jesus” controversy.  Aren’t you glad?  Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that the topic is getting as much attention as it is.

A more uplifting, maybe even inspiring topic?  Why do people put up crèches at Christmastime, anyway? 

Stay with me here.  This is good.

The following is by L.V. Anderson, an assistant editor at Slate.  She covers food and drink for that publication, but apparently has a few other interests as well:

Blame St. Francis of Assisi, who is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. The only historical account we have of Francis’ nativity scene comes from The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death. According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”) Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.

While this part of Bonaventure’s story is dubious, it’s clear that nativity scenes had enormous popular appeal. Francis’ display came in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment and education for European laypeople. These plays, originally performed in churches and later performed in town squares, re-enacted Bible stories in vernacular languages. Since church services at the time were performed only in Latin, which virtually no one understood, miracle plays were the only way for laypeople to learn scripture. Francis’ nativity scene used the same method of visual display to help locals understand and emotionally engage with Christianity.

Within a couple of centuries of Francis’ inaugural display, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe.

Two thoughts: One, Francis needed permission – from the pope, no less – to set up this first living nativity? Oy. And I complain about the bureaucratic nightmare of getting new ideas approved in the church.

But, more important, I am struck by Francis’ creativity and passion for communicating the good news of the gospel story. Instead of arguing over the exact tint of Jesus’ complexion, maybe we could deploy some of that passion in this direction.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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6 Responses to Why do people put up creches at Christmastime?

  1. mike December 17, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    Putting out a creche at Christmas is one of the few outward expressions of faith that this culture seems to tolerate without too much outcry. Christians seem to get a pass at Christmas re. gestures of faith. Easter?…Forgettabout it! It’s all about the bunny. What an inspiration we would all be to each other if we could wear our Christian faith more comfortably on our sleeves. Not sure why we have trouble with that….must be a pill, or something we could take.

    BTW – Nice usage of “Oy’ Doug. Wish I could have heard it tumble off of that
    mid-western tongue of yours….that’s a smile inducer.

  2. Doug December 17, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

    I was waiting for just the right moment to use it, Mike. I keep forgetting your northeastern roots. (Yankees fan, etc.)

  3. Jeanette Kibler December 17, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    I once asked a salesperson at the mall who was selling manger scenes what the difference was between a manger scene and a creche. She said, “I think a creche is Jewish.”

    • Doug December 18, 2013 at 5:41 am #

      Hi, Jeanette. Good to hear from you. (I understand we have a friend in common who now lives in Zurich.) I like this story – and now am determined to look up the origin of the word creche.

  4. Georgia Hamilton December 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    Doug, reading your blog was just wat I needed to prod me into getting out my creche(s). I’ve found as i gotten older, the need to decorate becoms less and less. However, the creche is really what it’s about, so yes, I’m going to retrieve it from it’s spot in the basement and put it out for all to see and be reminded! Thank you, Doug.

    • Doug December 18, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

      Georgia, am feeling some of the same, but with the kids coming, it wouldn’t seem right with out a tree. I’m beginning to understand now why my grandmother downsized her decorating – and probably did most of it for me.