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 13th C. saint and his enthusiastic followers popularized these devotions, he did not really invent them.
Among some of the oldest depictions of the nativity as described in the Gospels and visualized by artists are a 3rd C. fresco in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla and a 4th C. stone carving on a Roman sarcophagus now housed in a church in Milan. A chapel with a relic of the crib has existed in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome since the 5th C. Since those early depictions the nativity has been ubiquitously fresco’d onto church walls, carved into Cathedral portals and painted in prayer books.
If not the inventor of the nativity scene, then maybe he invented the living Nativity scene? According to his biographer, St. Boniface, Francis staged his first live nativity scene in the town of Greccio, Italy in 1223. Again, one can’t exactly attribute the invention of this custom to Francis, as it has it’s origin in 11th century Christmas plays.
Rather than inventing the (living) Nativity scene Francis popularized it. He did this for two reasons. On the one hand, he was inspired by a trip to the holy Land where 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 can 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.
Having received the papal blessing the custom of live nativities spread with the Franciscans throughout the continent. Elaborate re-enactments of the story of the nativity developed as a great teaching tool, especially for the illiterate masses. As with so 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.
Créche-making first became very popular throughout Europe and eventually throughout the world. Today, one can find artists working on Nativities nearly anywhere in the world, sometimes openly and sometimes underground. And these Nativities have experienced an incarnation in their own right as they have come to bare the cultural and ethnic marks of the people who make them. Thus they came to truly express the universality of the mystery of the Incarnation.