The popular manger scene of Christmas is a long-time Roman tradition that predates St. Francis of Assisi.
In the Gospel of St. Luke we read about the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: "She brought forth a son, her first-born, whom she wrapped in his swaddling-clothes, and laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
Hence from Scripture we are told that the Infant Savior was laid in a manger, or feeding trough, and so born in a type of stable, not in a dwelling place of men, but rather of beasts. From these facts of the event of Our Lord's birth, we witness the humility and tender mercy of the King of kings.
In the Palestine region, caves were often used in ancient times to house livestock while feeding troughs were typically made of wood. Symbolically the wood of the manger connects with Our Lord's Passion which ended on the Wood of the Cross. On the other hand, the stone Cave of the Nativity perhaps alludes to Our Lord's Resurrection, which took place in the Holy Sepulcher, a burial chamber cut into solid rock.
The fact that Our Lord's birth occurred in a cave was passed down for nearly a century, but as with many of the other Holy Places, the Cave of the Nativity was not rediscovered until the 2nd century by St. Justin the Martyr, thereupon a great devotion sprung up around it. In 326, St. Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine) had a church constructed over what has become known as the Grotto of the Nativity. Emperor Justianian had the larger and present-day Basilica of the Nativity built in 531.
As with the other shrines in the Holy Land, the Church of the Nativity has an interesting history worth exploring. The Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land have a very informative website that features the history of the shrine, a virtual tour, images and even diagrams of the Basilica and the caves located below. Note though, that they have an ecumenical explanation of the shared custody of the Church of the Nativity by the Latins, and the schismatic Greek Orthodox and Armenians.
Today one can access the Grotto of the Nativity by descending some stone steps situated to side of the basilica's high altar. Upon reaching the cave, one finds the Altar of the Nativity under which is inlaid a silver star in the marble floor bearing the inscription: “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est”: "Here the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ". To the right and a little distance from the Nativity altar is another altar shrine which marks where the Holy Mother of God laid the Divine Infant in the wooden manger.
Fragments of this Holy Crib—or Sacra Culla—can be venerated in Rome in the confessio under the high altar of St. Mary Major Basilica. There in a beautiful crib-shaped reliquary of crystal and silver, the wood pieces of the manger—called cunambulum—can be seen and meditated upon. This chapel was built on the orders of Pope Pius IX, who had a great devotion to the Holy Crib of Jesus, which is the reason for the marble statue of the Supreme Pontiff kneeling before the holy relic.
Another "relic" that can be found in Santa Maria Maggiore—the first Roman basilica dedicated to the Mother of God—is the "Crib" of Pope Sixtus III (432-440). So in addition to St. Mary Major being known colloquially as the "Liberian Basilica" (after Pope Liberius who had the first church built), it also bears the nickname of Sancta Maria ad Praesepe—Holy Mary at the Manger, referring to the relics of the Holy Crib.
The Latin word praesepio actually refers to a type of enclosure or barricade, or a fenced-in area for keeping livestock. Later this word was applied to the ancient Roman custom of depicting the manger scene of Our Lord's holy Nativity. This devotional practice of course was done to meditate more fully on the humility and poverty of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Family's example of detachment from the things of this earth.
The ancient praesepio of Pope Sixtus III constructed in 432 was actually a reconstruction of the "Holy Cave of the Nativity" as in Bethlehem. During a renovation of the Marian basilica under Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), the entire cave structure was moved as a single piece into the right-side nave, along with the figurine sculptures of Arnolfo di Cambio dating from 1288—they may still be seen in the church today.
In 1233—having previously visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem—St. Francis of Assisi (+1226) was inspired to erect a praesepio just a few days before Christmas in a cave near the town of Greccio (Italy) to depict "how poor [Christ] chose to be for our sakes":
If you want to celebrate the Feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to recall to memory the little child who was born in Bethlehem. I want to set before our bodily eyes the hardships of his infant needs, how he lay in the manger, how with an ox and ass standing by he lay upon the hay.”
As the Little Poverello's biographer Thomas of Celano further related:
He would often meditate on the desolation of Christ and his holy mother with tears, and he maintained that poverty was ‘the queen’ of the virtues, as she had become so radiantly manifest in the King and his mother.”
This Nativity scene included a live ox and donkey (but no persons), while on a stone block covered with straw, a carved wooden statue of the Divine Babe was laid—later miraculously seen to come alive.
The Franciscan Order naturally adopted the devotion of the Christmas manger scene and through the particular efforts of the Capuchin Fathers (to which Padre Pio and Ven. Fr. Solanus Casey both belonged), the Catholic custom of erecting a crib in the home began during the 17th century; later, outdoor manger scenes became popular especially in town squares. Unfortunately today, outdoor Nativity scenes have often been the cause of municipal controversies, though some townships have continued this edifying custom [see a YouTube video about the Community Creche in St. Mary's, Kansas].
Today's creches usually include the figurines of the shepherds and their sheep, while even more elaborate praesepios are comprised of entire villages containing many figures, buildings and detailed landscaping. Some of these scenes date from the 18th century, when crib-making became a type of native folk art. One example of such a praesepio in Rome is the extensive "Neapolitan Crib" in the Franciscan-run Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian.
We must of course add that today this touching devotion to the Infant Child in the manger is not complete until the expectant arrival of the Three Wise Men from the East bearing their gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany—that is, the 'manifestation' of Christ as King and Savior of the Gentiles.
The ascribed names of the Magi are Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, who from the Parthian Empire followed the Star to Bethlehem, where tradition says its light shone into the Well of the Magi—a cistern situated near the presbytery in the Basilica of the Nativity. Their bodily remains are enshrined in the cathedral of Cologne, Germany.
Scripture tells us that the Three Kings came before the Infant King and adored Him while presenting precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We too can emulate these men who were filled with True Wisdom by kneeling before the manger scene and presenting our hearts and minds to Our Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, Who came into this world as a man for our salvation and eternal happiness in Heaven.
- . In another 2-room cave under this church and adjacent to the Nativity Grotto, St. Jerome began laboring in 386 on the Latin Vulgate translation of Sacred Scripture, a task that took about 30 years.
- . This stone carved with a "V" shaped groove can still be seen today in the Greccio cave which is now a chapel. The stone serves as the base for the altar.