Christmas Customs… How They Began
Use of the nativity scene (crèche) as a Christmas symbol dates back to St. Francis of Assisi. In 1224, he set up a manger scene in the hills above the village of Greccio, Italy, to dramatize for his parishioners the humble origins of Jesus. He built a real stable with live animals, straw and hay. People dressed as Mary and Joseph, and shepherds stood among the cattle near a straw filled manger containing a lifelike wax image of the Christ Child.
In Greccio, the manger scene was so loved by the villagers that it was repeated year after year at Christmas. Gradually it was adopted by other towns and the custom spread. Eventually, the manger scene became as important to the celebration of Christmas in Southern Europe as the Christmas tree was in the north.