In 1224, Saint Francis had the idea of creating a “living” recreation of the birth of Jesus, as a way to bring the Christmas spirit to the local villagers. It is believed that local shepherds, guarding their flocks outside the small Italian town of Greccio, inspired him. Saint Francis had real people dressed in biblical robes, and real animals positioned outside a cave on the outskirts of Greccio. In the manager was a life sized wax figure of the infant Jesus.
On Christmas Eve, families traveled far and wide to witness the spectacle. Saint Francis urged the people to rejoice in the season of Christ’s birth and put hatred from their hearts. Over time the presepio, as it was called in Italy, grew in popularity. Other towns began featuring them and soon people had individual nativity scenes in their own homes. Wealthy families hired famous sculptors to make their nativity scenes. One of the most famous nativity scenes in Italy is displayed at in the Basilica of Saint Cosmos & Damian in Rome. Originally built in Naples during the 17th Century, it measures an impressive 45 by 20 feet and features hundreds of wooden figurines.