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.