It is said that Saint Francis was the first to stage a nativity play back in the 1223. He wanted to bring the story of Christmas closer to the people, so he devised the first living crèche (or crib; in Italian presepe) in Greccio. The idea was to discourage would-be pilgrims from going to Bethlehem, as it was a risky venture, the Holy Land being then under the control of the Turks. The tradition continues there to this day, and a memorial of St. Francis, the Santuario di S. Francesco, may be visited.
Francis, recalling a visit he had made years before to Bethlehem, resolved to create the manger he had seen there. The ideal spot was a cave in nearby Greccio. He would find a baby, hay upon which to lay him, an ox, and an ass to stand beside the manger. Word went out to the people of the town. At the appointed time, they arrived carrying torches and candles. One of the friars began celebrating Mass while Francis himself gave the sermon. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, recalls that Francis stood before the manger, overwhelmed with love and filled with a wonderful happiness. For Francis, the simple celebration was meant to recall the hardships Jesus suffered even as an infant, a savior who chose to become poor for our sake, a truly human Jesus.