Saint Francis of Assisi, Italy (1182-1226) was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. Francis was not a studious boy. During his youth he was most riotous and witty delighting in the pleasures of drinking, women and showy attire.
In the year 1202 when Francis was about twenty years old, a conflict broke out between the Assisians and the neighboring rival city of Perugain. Francis eagerly volunteered to fight as a cavalryman, however; the Assisians were quickly defeated. Francis, a prisoner of war, was forced to spend a year in captivity.
Francis returned to Assisi, but he was not the same free-spirited kid he as before the war. While he was still the life of the party his attentions were turned to caring for society’s cast offs. After experiencing several vivid dreams and various visions he turned away from all the worldly pleasures of his youth to accept a life as a Good Samaritan, including tending to the lepers. Francis sold all his property, gave his clothing to the poor and his money to the church for much needed repairs.
His father greatly disapproved of his son’s new occupation. Consequently he was disowned and his inheritance forfeited. Francis went on to devote his life to serving God. He worked to rebuild tattered church buildings. He cared for the sick and went about preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Francis vowed to live a life of poverty even going without shoes and trading his finery for a coarse woolen tunic. His lifestyle caught the attention of other young men and they too chose to leave all their riches behind to follow Francis in serving the poor. Eventually a separate order was formed for women known as the Franciscan Nuns and a second order called Poor Clares, named after a sixteen year old girl who left her home to join Francis’ cause. Thus Francis of Assisi is known as the founder of the Franciscan Order.
It was known that Francis had a special fondness for animals; he especially liked birds. Some say that wild animals did not fear him for they knew of his kindness and would bravely approach him seeking safety. It was his love for the animals that prompted him to ask the king to decree that “all men should provide and care for the birds and animals as well as the poor”.
During the Christmastide (the liturgical Christmas season beginning December 24th lasting 12 days to the eve of January 6th, the Day of Epiphany) in the year 1223, St. Francis of Assisi conceived the idea to honor the birth of the Savoir with a live “Nativity”. He wanted all to experience the lack of luxuries of the Christ child. On Christmas Eve Francis reproduced the manger scene in a cave near the small town of Greccio. He called the scene “The Praesepio, the crib, of Bethlehem”. According to the writings of St. Bonaventure, St. Francis’ friend and colleague, the people were brought to the cave through the woods, up and down hills bearing torches while singing hymns of praise.
Today community churches throughout the world celebrate the Christmas season with a live nativity scene or by hosting a nativity festival showcasing nativity sets from around the world. Families of Christian faith might display the nativity by first putting out the crèche. Then each night leading up to Christmas Eve they fill the manger with straw and place one character in the scene. On Christmas Eve the Christ child is placed in the manger filled with straw. The wise men are not brought out until January 5th the eve of Epiphany. This represents their journey to the stable January 6th being the 12th day of Christmas or Three Kings Day.
In out home we dedicated December 4th as nativity day. Taking cues from the original “The Praesepio, the crib, of Bethlehem” as portrayed by St. Francis we sing hymns and have a short devotional. During the devotional we discuss ways that we can help others in honor of the selfless sacrifices rendered by St. Francis as directed by God who said to love one another. This day is not an official Saint’s day. This is just a fun tradition we have as we like to celebrate traditions from many cultures and faiths around the world.