The crèche refers to the animals’ manger in which, according to Saint Luke, the Virgin placed Jesus when he was born. It later came to mean the place of the Nativity and then the Nativity.
The two oldest depictions of the Nativity date from the IVth century.
The first is a wall painting which decorates the funeral chamber of a Christian family living around the year 380. This
pictorial work was discovered in 1877 in the catacombs of Saint Sebastian in Rome.
The other reference is to a painted scene on a sarcophagus in the Basilica of Saint Maximin and depicts the three Wise Men worshipping the Christ Child.
The term crèche (from the German "Krippe") appeared in the XIIth century. Legend connects it to Saint Francis of Assisi: he was said to have celebrated Midnight Mass in 1223 with the approval of the Pope in Greccio, Italy in a stable where men and beasts re-enacted the Nativity.
Nativity plays date back to the Middle Ages when liturgical dramas, mysteries and plays were performed originally in churches and later just outside in the church porch or church square. The first church crèches appeared in the XVIth century and their mannered and stilted form replaced the theatrical style of medieval liturgies. The fashion for family crèches expanded in the XVIIIth century.