They have come down to us through the centuries out of the gray past. Some are so old that they go back to pre-Christian times, having been baptized together with the people and turned from pagan into Christian customs. But, once in a while, we know how one or another custom originated.
The Christmas crib, as we have it today, goes back to St. Francis of Assisi. Not that he was the one who made the first crèche; this devotion is almost as old as the Church. We are told that the very place of Christ’s birth and the manger in which He lay “wrapped in swaddling clothes” were already venerated in Bethlehem in the first centuries of the Christian era. Later, devout people substituted a silver manger for the original one and built a basilica over it, and, with the centuries, the veneration of the Holy Child lying in the manger spread all over the Christian countries.
St. Francis of Assisi got permission for his famous Christmas celebration in the woods of Greccio near Assisi on Christmas Eve 1223. St. Francis’s idea of bringing Bethlehem into one’s own town spread quickly all over the Christian world, and when there was a Christmas crib in every church, the families began to reenact the birth of Christ in their home too. With loving imagination, more or less elaborately, the little town of Bethlehem would be reconstructed. There would be the cave with the manger, “because there was no room at the inn,” and the figures would be carved in wood or modeled in clay or worked after the fashion of puppets. They also might be drawn and painted and then glued on wood.
The word crèche is the French word for a manger.
It was, and still is, the custom to “unveil” the crib on Christmas Eve in a ceremony of spiritual significance. Parents and children gather before the crib or Nativity crèche, and one of the older children reads the Gospel of Bethlehem [Luke 2]. Then prayers are said and a Christmas carol is sung. At the conclusion of this simple rite, the members of the family wish each other a blessed and merry Christmas. It is at this moment that Christmas really begins in the home. Everything that went before was only preparation. This is the beginning of the Feast, and its high points will be Mass and Communion a few hours later.