St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene with live animals in a cave in 1223. In that Italian town of Greccio, where the first nativity was set up, the Pope recently signed the apostolic letter Admirabile signum, which means “A wonderful sign”.
This letter was written to encourage the tradition of the nativity scene in families, schools, workplaces, hospitals, prisons, and town squares.
“Setting up the Christmas crèche in our homes helps us to relive the history of what took place in Bethlehem,” Pope Francis wrote in the letter.
“When, at Christmas, we place the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger, the nativity scene suddenly comes alive. God appears as a child, for us to take into our arms. Beneath weakness and frailty, he conceals his power that creates and transforms all things,” he said.
After his visit to Greccio, “the Pope wanted to give a further sign of his attention to this tradition of faith,” Holy See spokesman Matteo Bruni told the Catholic News Agency.
To do this, Pope Francis visited the 100 Nativities in the Vatican exhibition to bless Christmas scenes from around the world.
The unscheduled visit took place on Monday 9 December, with the Pope spending about 40 minutes meeting the staff and artists of the exhibition and viewing the nearly 130 nativities from 30 different countries.
He also recited a prayer and blessed those present.
The international display of nativities features many different styles, from the elaborate to the homemade.
It brings together nativities from Taiwan to Panama made from a variety of materials, including pinecones, aluminium, coral, yarn, and papier-mache. Among the many historical nativities from Italy is a modern rendition of the nativity made entirely from pasta.
The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation organises the display to share the history and spirituality behind the nearly 800-year-old Christmas devotion.
Photo is this year’s nativity scene at the Vatican. Photo courtesy of Richard Sofatzis.