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If you traveled back to medieval Europe, 800 years ago, you’d recognize many of the ways we celebrate Christmas today. There would be lots of special foods and drinks, holly and evergreen decorations, game-playing, gift-giving, and attending church on Christmas Day.
But there’s one beloved tradition you wouldn’t find, because it hadn’t yet been introduced.
Enter Brother Francesco, a slightly built but larger-than-life Italian with a flair for the dramatic. He and his followers – known as the Poor Brothers – were peace-loving itinerant preachers who gave away all their worldly possessions and lived in poverty. They begged or worked for their daily bread and sang as they traveled from place to place.
In addition to his deep commitment to charity, Brother Francesco loved God and Christmas with a passion he shared with everyone, especially the poor and sick. He even spread his Christmas cheer to the lowliest birds and beasts of the field.
One year during the Crusades, Brother Francesco traveled to the Holy Land and sought out the Muslim sultan, hoping to convert him. He fully expected to be martyred. Instead, the sultan was so impressed by the humble, charming preacher he granted him access to all the holy sites around Jerusalem that were at the time strictly off limits to Christians.
That remarkable experience sparked within Brother Francesco’s mind and heart an idea for a completely novel Christmas Eve celebration. A few years later, in 1223, he decided it was time to bring the idea to fruition; but he knew he couldn’t make it happen by himself. He’d need the help of his good friend, Lord Giovanni of Greccio.
Lord Giovanni had already been generous enough to give the Poor Brothers some land on a mountainside pocked with caves and ledges for a hermitage, a religious retreat. All Brother Francesco needed now was a solid plan of action and the participation of some of Lord Giovanni’s farm animals and Greccio’s townspeople.
In my newly released, middle-grade novel “A Bellwether Christmas,” I tell the story of a headstrong, orphaned lamb named Bart, whose harrowing journey to find love and belonging leads him – together with his shepherd and barnyard friends – to Brother Francesco’s unprecedented Christmas Eve celebration.
Francesco and his fellow religious brothers transform one of their mountainside caves into a cozy stable – complete with an ox, a donkey and a manger filled with straw. The enchanting tableau is lit by torches.
Late that night, a crowd of excited townspeople holding candles trudge up the mountainside. When they reach the cave, they are astonished and awed by what they behold. They fall into a reverent hush as a priest conducts the evening service.
A living baby lies in the manger as Brother Francesco comes forward to preach in common Italian. He brings the congregation to tears with his heartfelt message about the lowly birth of the humble, yet royal, Babe of Bethlehem. There is joyous singing, but not just from the Latin liturgy. There are newer, lively, folk songs too — some of our earliest Christmas carols.
In the following years, Brother Francesco’s brainchild is emulated everywhere. All over Europe and throughout Christendom, living Nativities are staged during Christmastime. Italians call them presepios; the French call them crèches.
Today, we call them Nativities or manger scenes. They can be anything from room-sized and populated with live animals and people, to tabletop-sized and made of resin or ceramic or wood.
Christians everywhere now commonly bring candles to late-night Christmas Eve services, sing Christmas carols, and place baby Jesus in their manger scene by Christmas morning. All these popular traditions can be traced back to one man with a passionate love for God, people, and Christmas – someone known the world over as St. Francis of Assisi.