Tradition has it that Saint Francis of Assisi created the first crèche in 1223 when he mounted a living nativity scene, consisting of a manger, an ox and a donkey, as part of a Christmas Eve Mass he organized while visiting the mountain town of Grecio.
St. Bonaventure wrote of that night in his biography of St. Francis, "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 marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep."
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.
Crèches aren't necessarily historically accurate, given that most depict both the shepherds and the Magi as being present at the manger immediately after Christ is born—the Gospel of Matthew suggests that the Magi followed the star to Jesus's home a year or more after his birth—but believers find inspiration in see these beloved figures from the Christmas story gathered together in one place.
Many scholars believe that the oldest crèche in Italy is a group of marble figures housed in Rome's Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and attributed to the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio; the figures have been variously dated from 1284 to 1289.
The French province of Provence is renowned as the home of artisans who create santons (little saints), tiny clay figurines that are made by hand. As elsewhere, in-home nativity scenes had become very popular over the centuries in this area of France, but they were too often very ornate and made of fine materials and therefore were too pricey for the average family. During the French Revolution, they were even banned outright.
In 1797, Jean-Louis Lagnel began to make nativity figurines out of clay, making them affordable for most everyone, and in the 20th century, Thérèse Neveu began the tradition of firing the clay figures to make them stronger, thus giving birth to santons as they exist today. The Musée du Santon et des Traditions de Provence is home to the largest collections of santons and it is there that one can view the world’s tiniest crèche, so designated by The Guinness Book of World Records, which boasts 39 santons in a nutshell.
The Guinness Book of World Records cites a crèche created by Tomáš Krýza (1838-1918) as the world's largest of its type. A stocking weaver who lived in Jindrichuv Hradec in what is now the Czech Republic, Krýza spent sixty years on the elaborate display, which features 1389 figures of humans and animals. Krýza began with the Nativity scene and over the decades expanded the crèche, which is today housed in a museum in Jindrichuv Hradec, to depict other Biblical themes and scenes of everyday life in the 19th century.
Every December, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art displays an 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene at the foot of a Christmas tree. The figures in this crèche were donated by the late Loretta Hines Howard, who began collecting crèche figures in 1925 and wished to combine the custom of Nativity scenes, a Roman Catholic custom, with a Christmas trees, which began as a Protestant tradition.
Each year during the holiday season, the Art Institute of Chicago displays its own 18th-century Neapolitan crèche, which boasts more than 200 figures (including 50 animals) and depicts, as crèches of that era so often do, scenes from contemporary life of the time in addition to the Nativity.