Saint Francis and the First Christmas Crèche
By Curtis Peter Van Gorder
As a young man, Francis of Assisi loved material things, especially beautiful clothes from the shop of his wealthy merchant father. One biographer describes the handsome, young, fun-loving Francis as “the very king of frolic.” That changed at the age of about 20, after he went to fight in a skirmish with a rival city. He was taken prisoner, held for over a year, and came home very weak from a serious illness.
At some point during his ordeal, Francis realized that there must be more to life than shallow pleasures, and he came to the conclusion that real satisfaction was to be found in loving God and doing what God wanted him to do—love others. He was disowned by his father for giving away family wealth, surrendered whatever other worldly goods and privileges he had, and wandered the countryside, improvising hymns of praise as he went. Others, drawn by his sincerity, zeal, and joy, joined Francis in his vow of poverty—the beginnings of the Franciscan Order.
Francis loved people, from the rich and powerful in their palaces to the beggars in the streets. He also loved animals and is said to have been able to communicate with them. He also is said to have tamed a fierce wolf that terrified the villagers of Gubbio, Italy, and he petitioned the emperor to pass a law that all birds and beasts, as well as the poor, be given extra food at Christmas, “so that all might have occasion to rejoice in the Lord.”
Francis was always looking for new ways to make God’s truths easily understandable to others. At Christmastime 1223, while visiting the town of Grecio, Italy, he had the idea of showing people what Jesus’ birthplace must have been like. He found a mountain cave near the village and fashioned it into a rough stable. St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi, gave this account of what followed:
“Then he prepared a manger and brought hay and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy. Then he preached to the people around the Nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, he called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”
Saint Francis is also considered the “father of the Christmas carol” for having been the first to include carols in Christmas worship services. As a boy, Francis had perhaps learned more in the school of the troubadours—itinerant composers and performers of songs—than from the priests of St. George’s at Assisi, where his father had sent him for an education. It’s not surprising, then, that joyous music became one of Francis’s favorite forms of worship. That joy was contagious, and still is.
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