St. Francis and the crèche: an 800-year legacy
This year, when festive lights twinkle in homes worldwide, we will find ourselves at a significant milestone. It is the 800th anniversary of a tradition that has, for centuries, symbolized the true essence of Christmas — the crèche.
The word “crèche” originates from the Old French term for a crib or manger. This iconic scene, which reenacts the birth of Jesus Christ, finds its roots in the 13th century with St. Francis of Assisi. But who would have thought that a simple representation in a cave in Greccio, Italy, would leave such a lasting legacy?
In 1223, St. Francis, desiring to make the experience of the Christmas story more tangible and accessible, set up a live nativity. His intention? To eschew the rising materialism of the time and bring focus back to the simple and divine nature of the Christmas story. By using real animals and a manger in a cave setting, he created a physical representation of the events of that holy night.
From its Italian origins, the crèche rapidly gained traction across Europe. Artisans in different countries began to depict the nativity using materials and styles that reflected their own cultures. The Polish “szopka,” Spanish “Belénes” and French “santons” are just a few regional iterations.
In Latin America, entire towns partake in live reenactments. In the Philippines, the “Panunuluyan” pageant is performed: actors go from house to house, seeking shelter, culminating in a display of the manger scene.
The crèche, in all its forms, is more than just an ornamental display. It stands as a visual sermon reflecting the core of Christian belief that God became man to walk among us. This simple scene — one of a child born in humble circumstances surrounded by adoring shepherds and wise men — speaks to the universal themes of love, humility and hope.
It serves as a poignant reminder of a god who chose a simple manger in which to make entrance into the world. To many, this underscores the idea that divinity can be found in simplicity and that every individual holds intrinsic value, no matter their circumstances.
Celebrating the 800th anniversary of the crèche is about recognizing the enduring appeal and significance of a tradition that transcends cultural and geographical boundaries. The crèche’s ability to continue inspiring and uniting people across generations is truly remarkable.
The octocentenary is a testament to the enduring power of the story it represents. Despite rapidly changing times, the story of a child in a manger continues to captivate and inspire. It presents an opportunity to reflect on the shared human experience. In a world that sometimes feels more divided than united, the crèche remains a symbol of universal compassion and faith. Whether displayed in a cathedral in Europe or a home in Africa, its essence remains unchanged. It is a call back to simplicity, love and hope.
Crèche Octocentenary Events
The Greccio Experience: Opening Prayer Service
Nov. 29, 5:30 p.m. (live streamed)
San Damiano Chapel, 900 Viterbo Drive, La Crosse, WI
The Greccio Experience: A Display of Nativity Scenes
Nov. 29–Dec. 17: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays
San Damiano Chapel (use parking lot entrance)
Crèches (Nativity scenes) from around the world will be on display for self-guided tours.
Creating Your Nativity Scene with Pope Francis
Dec. 3–24, 2023
With beautiful artwork from Friar Joseph Dorniak and content by Franciscan Action Network Board Member Friar Michael Lasky, all are invited to honor the 800th anniversary of St. Francis' living Nativity scene this Advent with this meditative resource — interweaving art, history and prayer.
Community Mural: "For Unto Us a Child is Born"
Dec. 4 –15: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 5 to 7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays
Franciscan Spirituality Center, 920 Market St., La Crosse
All are welcome to stop by the Franciscan Spirituality Center to take part in this 12-by-5 foot community mural paint-by-number experience. Painters of all ages and skill levels are encouraged to participate. No registration is required and all supplies will be provided.
Franciscan Night at La Crosse's Rotary Lights Holiday Display
Dec. 10, 5 to 10 p.m. (Viterbo's Ninth Street Singers will perform at 5:30 p.m.)
Riverside Park, 100 State Street, La Crosse
Celebrate the 800th anniversary of the first crèche with a Franciscan Night at La Crosse's Rotary Lights. Franciscans from around the community will staff the park, and Viterbo University’s choir will perform in the Ice Castle. This special occasion offers an evening of faith, community and heartfelt celebration and a commemorative keepsake.
Blessing of Baby Jesus
Dec. 17, 9:50 a.m. (followed by 10 a.m. Sunday Mass)
Mary of the Angels Chapel, 901 Franciscan Way, La Crosse
Join us in honoring the birth of Jesus Christ with a Blessing for the Baby Jesus. Bring your Baby Jesus figurine from your home Nativity scene to be blessed by Fr. Conrad Targonski, OFM, in this profound symbolic gesture, demonstrating respect, love and reverence for the divine made manifest in the world.
Details on more events can be found on the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration website.