In the 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi created the first Christmas Creche, which helped to make the local townspeople aware of the Christmas story. St. Bonaventure, bishop and Doctor of the Church who died in 1274, told the story in his biography of Francis:
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff.
Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.
A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.
This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth. For example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.
Pope John Paul II, during his papacy, instituted the celebration of “Bambinelli Sunday” on the Third Sunday of Advent—a day on which children from Rome bring to St. Peter’s Square the figurine of the Christ Child from their families’ Nativity sets. Then, following the Sunday Angelus address, the Holy Father blesses the statues of Baby Jesus which the children will take back to homes to be placed under their Christmas trees.
Today, Pope Francis will continue the tradition, blessing the statuettes which children bring before him in the Square. Parishes around the world now join in the celebration, encouraging young children to make the connection between the Nativity set at home and the local church where they worship each weekend.
Amy Welborn brings the tradition to the fore this year in her beautiful new book for children, Bambinelli Sunday: A Christmas Blessing. Amy tells the story of Alessandro, a boy from Naples. Alessandro’s grandfather is an artist who sculpts Nativity figures from clay. Alessandro helps his grandfather in his small shop, then the two of them travel to Rome for the blessing on Bambinelli Sunday.
Amy’s book, featuring the descriptive watercolors of Ann Kissane Engelhart, would be a beautiful Christmas gift for a child on your list.
Here, Pope Benedict’s blessing from 2008:
God our Father,
you loved us so much
you sent us your only Son,
born of the Virgin Mary,
to save us and lead us back to
We pray that, with your blessing,
these images of Jesus might
a sign of your presence and love
in our homes.
give your blessing
to all who gather with us this
family and friends.
Open our hearts,
that we might
receive Jesus in joy,
do always what he asks of us
and see him in those
who need our love.
We ask this in the name of Jesus,
your beloved Son,
who came to give peace to the world.
You who live and reign forever and
UPDATE: Following are the words of the Holy Father following today’s Angelus address to the children who have brought their statuettes to be blessed.
Today the first greeting is for the children of Rome, who have come for the traditional blessing of the “Bambinelli” (figures of the Christ Child for the crèche), organized by the Centro Oratori Romani.
Dear children, when you pray before your crèche, remember me too, as I will remember you.
I thank you, and Merry Christmas!