Away in a cave near Greccio, Italy, St Francis of Assisi had the first nativity scene—a live one—staged for the faithful on Christmas Eve in 1223. A 15th-century fresco now decorating the cave inspired the Nativity scene erected in St Peter’s Square for the 800th anniversary celebrations, As the scene was unveiled and the Christmas tree in the square was lit up on 9 December, a special dinner for 150 homeless people was served under under Bernini’s colonnade.

Earlier in the day, before the scene was unveiled, Pope Francis met with the more than 100 people involved in erecting the creche, and with officials from the Rieti Valley, which includes Greccio, and from the little town of Macra, in northern Italy, which donated the silver fir tree.

For St Francis of Assisi, who had travelled to the Holy Land, ‘the caves of Greccio reminded him of the landscape of Bethlehem,’ the Pope said. The saint asked that a donkey and an ox, some hay and a manger be brought to the cave on Christmas Eve and invited other friars and people from the village, ‘creating a living Nativity scene. Thus, the tradition of the Nativity scene as we understand it was born.’

Remembering Greccio today, the Pope said, people should also think of Bethlehem. ‘And as we contemplate Jesus—God made man, small, poor, defenceless—we cannot but think of the tragedy that the inhabitants of the Holy Land are living, expressing to those brothers and sisters of ours, especially the children and their parents, our closeness and our spiritual support. They are the ones who pay the true price of war.’

For St Francis of Assisi, who had travelled to the Holy Land, ‘the caves of Greccio reminded him of the landscape of Bethlehem.’

Whether the Nativity scene is in St Peter’s Square, in a church or in one’s home, the Pope said, people passing one should remember Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago and be moved to ‘silence and prayer in our often so hectic daily lives.’

‘Silence to be able to listen to what Jesus tells us from the unique “cathedra” of the manger,’ he said. ‘Prayer to express grateful wonder, tenderness and perhaps the tears that the Nativity scene stirs in us.’

Enrico Bressan, co-curator of the Nativity scene in the square, told reporters that when he and Giovanna Zabotti were asked two years ago to create the Vatican creche for the anniversary, ‘We felt like Giovanni Velita and his wife, Alticama,’ who helped St Francis of Assisi stage that first scene.

Pope Francis, who usually visits the scene after vespers on 31 December, stopped by on 29 November to see the work in progress and bless the workers, Bressan said. ‘It was a great joy for us and gave us strength.’

Among the 103 people who worked on the scene, he said, one of the first was Francesco Artese, a master creche maker, who used the fresco now in the cave to design the scene. Antonio Cantone, who has been making Nativity scene figures in Naples for more than four decades, created the life-sized figures of the Holy Family, St Francis of Assisi, other friars and the Velita couple. Set and lighting designers from Cinecittà, the famed Rome movie studio, created the cave and the lighting.

Cantone also created the figures for Nativity scenes in the square in 2013 and 2017. But those had the facial features and clothes of Neapolitans in the 1700s, which is now the standard for Italian Nativity scenes. However, this year’s figures resemble how people would have looked and dressed in central Italy in the 1200s, he said.

‘For an artist who lives making Nativity scenes year-round,’ he said, being part of the 800th anniversary celebration ‘is like winning an Oscar for the years of sacrifice and the creches of the past.’

Whenever someone sets up a Nativity scene, there is not just Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. We are there. The people of today. We are the shepherds now.

The figures include a Franciscan priest celebrating Mass, just as one of St Francis’ confreres did in the cave on Christmas Eve in 1223.

Cardinal Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, head of the office governing Vatican City State, told those gathered in the square in the evening for the unveiling that the representation of the Mass at the manger ‘emphasises how the Incarnation of the son of God has remained among us through his body and blood in the Eucharist.’

Zabotti said that for her, Nativity scenes were always part of a family celebration of Christmas, but the two-year project for St Peter’s Square made her realise how St Francis was trying to tell the simple people of Greccio that ‘whenever in the world people gather on that night in Jesus' name, there is the Incarnation.’

‘Whenever someone sets up a Nativity scene,’ she said, ‘there is not just Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. We are there. The people of today. We are the shepherds now.’

The unveiling of the Nativity scene and lighting of the Christmas tree in St Peter’s Square on 9 December included a group of special guests. For the first time in history, 150 homeless people enjoyed a festive meal, served by Italian journalists and their families, under the famous baroque Bernini’s colonnade in the square.

The meal was organised by the Dicastery for the Service of Charity and St Peter’s Parish with the support of the Governorate of Vatican City State as part of the ‘actions of a social nature of the Papal Basilica of St Peter’s in preparation for the Jubilee’ of 2025.

I thank God the homeless people of today could dine here because this is where they live, under the colonnade; it’s their place.

In 1656, when sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was entrusted with the construction of the now-famous colonnade, Rome was dramatically affected by the plague, and it was difficult to find construction workers. Pope Alexander VII decided to gather homeless people living around the Vatican to help build what is today considered a baroque masterpiece.

‘The Pope gave them the job, he gave them the salary and brought back dignity,’ Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Charity, said of Pope Alexander VII. ‘Now I thank God the homeless people of today could dine here because this is where they live, under the colonnade; it’s their place.’

The meal was cooked by staff of the biggest television channel in Italy, RAI. They served the homeless with their children. ‘The children were beautifully dressed; they walked every homeless person to a white table where the meal was served to them like in an exclusive restaurant,’ Cardinal Krajewski said.

For more than 150 years, St Patrick’s Cathedral Melbourne has welcomed parishioners and tourists alike to its life-sized nativity scene, located just inside the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. In 1871, The Advocate reported that on Christmas Day the crib ‘was visited during the day by thousands of devout worshippers’. The wax figures had been specially designed by a Mr Guerrard, whose work also featured in the Sydney Cathedral that same year. The figures were described thus: ‘The Blessed Virgin is represented in a kneeling posture, and the figure is eminently expressive of adoration. St Joseph stands by the side of the manger, and with one band raised in involuntary wonder and awe, gazes upon the beautiful Babe beneath. The Infant God is laid upon a little straw, covered with scanty drapery, and bears upon His brow the impress of something more than mortal.’ If you find yourself in or around the city, be sure to pay a visit to St Patrick’s Cathedral to view this beautifully presented nativity scene.

It’s not the only crib on display either: just by the entrance in the forecourt of the Cathedral is a nativity that was donated to the Archdiocese by the council of the City of Melbourne. And near the Chapel of the Sacred Heart is a small porcelain nativity, donated to the Cathedral by Melbourne Catholic Ray Cutajar and family.

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Nativity scene, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne.

Banner image: The Nativity scene is revealed and Christmas tree is lighted in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on 9 December. The creche is a reproduction of the scene in Greccio, Italy, where St Francis of Assisi staged the first Nativity scene in 1223. The baby Jesus will be placed in the manger on 24 December. (Photo: CNS/Lola Gomez.)