The story of the first Nativity scene is a well-known Christmas staple: Saint Francis of Assisi is traditionally believed to have asked the citizens of the village of Grecchio, in 1223, to play the characters in the Nativity. What’s certain is that these “living cribs” became highly popular and the tradition spread around the world.
The trouble was that these were large-scale affairs that often required dozens of actors and a lot of preparation. During the French Revolution, religious reenactments were suppressed, and Nativities were reduced to miniature scenes that families could recreate at home.
Some of the most famous of these are the brightly colored “santouns” (small saints, in the local dialect) from Provence. In addition to the biblical players—Jesus’ family, the shepherds, angels, and kings—these Nativity scenes usually include a collection of everyday characters and traditional trades.
There is one character you may not immediately recognize but is essential to any Provençal Nativity. He isn’t bringing any gifts, but his arms are raised and his expression is of intense surprise and joy. He is Lou Ravi (the delighted one). In Italy, a similar Nativity figure is called Lo Stupito (the astonished one), and their shared characteristic is a strong sense of awe and marvel. They seem empty-handed, but actually, they’re bringing the most beautiful gift of all: their wonder.
We who know the story of Christmas so well can easily grow familiar with its blessing. Jesus’ birthday becomes a traditional, recurring event much like any other. When in fact, it’s anything but. The truth is: God loves us so much that He came to earth as a human, in the form of His Son, Jesus, so we could get to know Him and learn to trust Him and love Him back.1 May we always retain Lou Ravi’s childlike wonder at this incredible gift!