Blame St. Francis of Assisi, who is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. The only historical account we have of Francis’ nativity scene comes from The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death.
According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”) Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.
The nativity scene’s popularity took off from there. Within a couple of centuries, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe. We don’t know if people actually played Mary and Joseph during Francis’ time, or whether they just imagined those figures’ presence. We do know that later scenes began incorporating dioramas and life actors, and the cast of characters gradually expanded beyond Mary, Joseph and sweet baby Jesus, to sometimes include an entire village.
Nativity buffs will know, however, that the familiar cast of characters relied upon today—the three wise men and the shepherds—is not biblically accurate. Of the New Testament’s four gospels, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth. Matthew mentions wise men, while Luke comments on shepherds. But nowhere in the Bible do shepherds and wise men appear together. What’s worse, no one mentions donkeys, oxen, cattle or other farmyard friends in conjunction with Jesus’ birth. But what would a nativity scene be without those staples? Luckily for all the kids cast as King #2 or random shepherd, some artistic interpretation is permitted.