Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio, central Italy, in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving. St. Francis depicted his display with living people.
Francis had recently been inspired by his visit to the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesus’s traditional birthplace. The scene’s popularity inspired communities throughout Christendom to recreate similar types of Nativity scenes.
After that first nativity scene, the practice became popular and spread far and wide. Within a century, virtually every church in Italy, for example, had taken up the practice. Over time, statues, rather than living people and animals, were used, which eventually led to the in-home nativity scenes that are so much a part of Christmas today.
The nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.