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A sermon illustration.

Would you believe that the nativity started out as a sermon illustration; an attempt to have people visualize how humble and inconvenient the birth of the Christ child was.

In 1223 St. Francis of Assis was came to deliver mass on Christmas Eve in the small mountainside town of Greccio, Italy.  Either due to the size of the Chapel in the town or because of his deep desire to convey a poignant message or both, St. Francis moved the service outside.  He wanted to show the conditions into which the Christ child was born.  He requested that a manger be set up in a niche and piled with hay and then he brought a live donkey and a live ox to the scene.  It was a silent nativity, but a picture of the humbleness.  In a tear-fill address St. Francis conveyed both his devotion and radiant joy to the faithful.

 

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The original Nativity was made up of three pieces, a full scale and likely used manager filled with hay, a living donkey and a living ox. Although there is no mention of animals, other than the sheep on the hillside with the shepherds, in the Biblical accounts of the Bethlehem birth, St. Francs choose to use these common farm animals to demonstrate his point of a poor and lowly coming of the Christ.  To this day, both the donkey and the ox are staples of the Nativity scene.

 

Soon after St. Francis’ display Nativities began showing up in churches across Italy.  These were most often made from terracotta and quite large.  The five main pieces making up the Nativity were the Stable, the empty Manger, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus to be added late on Christmas Eve.

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Within a few hundred years after his open-air illustration, nearly every church in Italy prominently displayed at Nativity scene.  To the original five pieces were added, the Angel Gabriel, Shepherds, Wisemen, and various farm animals.  By the 1500s wealthy religious families began incorporating wax and wooden Nativities into their home décor.

In natural progression as the Nativities began migrating outside of Italy, the Germans began crafting them into smaller displays and soon they became a fixture in most German homes.  With the German Nativity came the tradition to display an empty manager until Christmas day when the babe was added.  This tradition continues into the present.

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Today’s Nativities are made of many types of materials, including glass, ceramics, wood, metal, plastic.  They can incorporate the five basic pieces or have as many additional pieces as one may wish.  Regardless of which one you have, it is part of an old and heart-felt tradition used to remind us of a humble birth of a King.

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Little Kids sing Away in a Manger

  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.       Luke 2:7

http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/st-francis-and-the-christmas-creche.html (Saunders, Rev. William. “St. Francis and the Christmas Creche.” Arlington Catholic Herald.)  (2015 12 10)(Web)
festivenativities.com/  “History of the Nativity Scene” (2015 12 10)(Web)
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