It is the Christmas meme of memes, but not like you know it: all hail the Nativity, invented by St Francis
THE Christmas crib is 800 years old. That’s right, the Nativity scene with ox, ass and manger wasn’t always a thing. It was the genius idea of St Francis of Assisi, who had returned from the Holy Land and thought to himself that the landscape around Greccio, near Assisi, was really like what he’d seen at Bethlehem, with all the rocks and things.
And so he asked the local lord for a hay-filled manger, viz, the trough animals ate from, plus ox and donkey. The lord duly obliged and St Francis brought them to a cave outside town, where he invited the locals to come and contemplate the bleak poverty in which the King of kings was born, because there was no room at the inn, “to see”, as St Francis said, “as much as possible with my bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs; how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and ass standing by, he was laid upon a bed of hay”.
The spirit of Christmas derives everything from that original installation of the manger in a cave
It was a hit. It trended. It became the meme of memes. The people of Greccio and “all those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene”. And that, mark you, was a Nativity scene minus baby Jesus. St Francis just showed the manger with actual hay; it took later generations to put the Christ child in the manger, and usually, that only happens on Christmas Day.
Until then, the whole cast is present, but not the baby around whom the drama plays. That attempt to visualise the events in Bethlehem is one of the defining points of Western civilisation. It was then we got the imaginative effort to visualise the birth of Christ which was the spur to the imagination of Europe for the last eight centuries. It’s the origin of the spirit behind our Christmas carols. “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed; the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” That’s what St Francis conjured up at Greccio in 1223. That’s what your local school Nativity play — if that’s still actually allowed — is all about, the attempt to replicate the old story.
All our Christmases are really a giant act of cultural appropriation, with the difference that the source of it all doesn’t mind a bit. Of course there have always been celebrations of midwinter, Roman or Norse, but the spirit of Christmas derives everything from that original installation of the manger in a cave, to bring home to us that God didn’t just become man; he became a poor baby.
Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist