For most people ‘jolly old St. Nicholas’ is a central figure in the holiday festivities. Variations of the red suit with a bag or sled filled with gifts is ubiquitous. But few people know that it was another saint who contributed a more religious aspect to the winter holiday we refer to as Christmas. His name was Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, the world knows him as St. Francis of Assisi.
As the flurry of last minute shopping reaches a fever pitch for some, as Dec. 25 draws closer, often there is little time for reflection. Few take the time to think on where do all these holiday customs come from and why do we get so stressed out?
Yet while the origins of Santa Claus is mostly myth, historians today can clearly trace St. Francis. He was a real person. Evidence of his existence is tangible and tactile. In essence as the saying goes, we “know where the body is buried,” his remains can and have been examined, from his bones to his sackcloth wool clothing. The reason for this reporter making this clear outright is because much of what the saint focused on in his lifetime was living out the Gospel message of Jesus, simply and fully.
The fact that people in Francis’ time were getting caught up in festivals and merriment had more to do with his view of the world as a penitent in service to the ‘crucified Lord’ than it did about any celebration of Christmas itself.
To help redeem humanity and establish God’s Kingdom was something very real in his mind. So for him to be a wondering mendicant friar or ‘brother to all” as a ‘preacher’ working and begging for basic necessities was what St. Francis the prosperous merchant’s son turned ascetic – holy man was all about.
He truly believed in the narrative of the birth of Jesus. To him it was real. And as described by his early biographers, like Thomas of Celano, to reenact the narrative from the Gospel was a way to call attention to what he and the Church believed was the true meaning of Christmas.
But the Christmas nativity scene as we know it, like something out of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ was instituted by St. Francis way back in 1223. Just about all nativity scene-plays or pageants have a link to the custom that St. Francis instituted.
Even then, in the Medieval times in which St. Francis lived holiday celebrations were rather worldly. At least this is how St. Francis viewed it.
In his mind the people were not focused on what he and his religious order considered to be “the reason for the season,” Jesus being born in Bethlehem, a savior for the world. The incarnation was an important theme/focus in his life. And, in the prayerful life of the Order of Friars Minor (or “little brothers) that he founded.
The idea that God came to earth and took the form of a human being because “God so loved the world” was essential to St. Francis. He believed it wholeheartedly.
The efforts of Francis and his group of brothers in this endeavor made an impact.
From that time on ‘the crèche’ was included as part of the holiday celebrations. “We always hear that Christmas was one of two great occasions for Francis, said scholar and writer Fr. Jude Wrinkler, OFMConv. Because that (and the cross), represent when Jesus was most clearly seen as incarnate.”
“This is also why the Eucharist and the Word of God were so important for him. Also, said Fr. Wrinker, who hosts a podcast, St. Francis speaks of becoming the mother of Jesus when we make him real and present in our lives and the lives of others.” Taken aback by such a radical little known fact about St. Francis, this reporter asked was this part of his experience as ‘a mystic?’
To answer this question, Fred Schaeffer, SFO pointed to the writings of the saint, which are not only the basis of the rule of his religious order, but provides insight into who he was. “Francis’ ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ tells us a lot about his uniqueness as a mystic. Some call him an impossible dreamer, notes Schaeffer. But make no mistake about this; he wasn’t a simpleton or a fool. St. Francis had a deep, innate Faith in God, honed to a finer point than most of us.”
To illustrate his sense of an innate intimacy of spirit, (like many mystics throughout the centuries and in many other religions) Francis liked to spend time in mediation and prayer. Quiet places be it some small corner or a rural spot, like a meadow or a hilltop. When deeply moved or most joyful, he would speak in French.
Some scholars speculate that Francis inherited much of his religious disposition from his mother. And, so when he was moved with an intimate thought or prayer he would express it in French. The fact that he sought an intimate relationship with God through Jesus was a major focus of his life. According to writer and Franciscan spirituality historian Fr. Murray Bodo, OFM, “Francis was in love with God.”
And as both Winkler and Shaeffer point out. The Christmas play Francis instated was more than just a ‘morality play’ portrayed allegorically. It was in and of itself an expression of a mystic’s intimacy.
Providing more than one holiday custom, as a troubadour and a poet at heart, Francis liked to sing. Some scholars also note that it was most likely a saint like Francis who promoted the singing of religious themed carols. Merriment, wine and song as a celebration during winter goes back to ancient times with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia.
In some instances, similar to today’s dilemma of the ‘true meaning’ of the holidays, the focus or the lack there of depends upon one’s perspective. It can be said that that it is difficult to impose an intimacy upon a celebration or festivity. Whether it is polite or ethical to impose customs is a question for our 21st Century society. Yet, for someone like St. Francis it was the religious focus.
“Thus, Christmas for St. Francis, said Fr. Winker is not only a celebration of what happened long ago, (as described in the Gospels) but also an invitation to make it present again in our own days with our embracing of the Word of God in our lives.”