BOSTON – While in some parts of the United States people avoid saying “Merry Christmas” and opt instead for more generic seasonal greetings, in Italy – a country where Mass participation is steadily dropping – this holiday is still, nonetheless, very much focused on celebrating the birth of Christ.

Many things could be said about Mass participation in Italy, and not all of them good. Visitors might be shocked, for example, by the mad race for the Eucharist, where often no prisoners are taken in the hurry to be the first in line, or by the fact that upon returning from Communion, it’s not uncommon to find that someone else has taken your seat.

All these things one can get accustomed to, and even be amused by, in time.

When going to Mass in Italy, the thing that is always very disconcerting, is the radically small number of people in attendance. The pews are often empty, except for a handful of little old Italian ladies, dressed in their Sunday best, with enough perfume to rival the incense in the air. This might come as a surprise for a country where more than 70 percent of people declare themselves Catholic, according to official government data.

Italians themselves will give the answer to this odd discrepancy: “I’m Catholic,” they will say. “I go to Mass on Christmas!”

The pews fill up on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, when between 30 and 50 percent of Italians go to Mass to practice their faith. In parts of the United States, Christmas celebrations have been toned down, on one hand to cater to the idea of political correctness, and on the other, in order to adapt to an increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic society.

Of course, Italy has also felt the impact of globalization and heightened sensitivities. There have been news reports of schools banning Christmas carols, and calling for the celebration of the ‘Great Feast of the Good Feasts’ instead. Such propositions have so far been met with anger and indignation by many in society and media.

The Corriere della Sera, one of the premiere Italian newspapers, denounced in a recent article the efforts to eliminate Christ from Christmas: “This way our traditions and values are dismantled, as if we should feel ashamed of them,” it said.

The single tradition that connects Italians the most with the true meaning of Christmas is the crèche or nativity scene, which can be traced back to the Middle Ages and can be found in every part of the peninsula with all its various forms and interpretations.

“When you will be praying at home, before the nativity scene with your relatives, let yourselves be drawn by the tenderness of baby Jesus, born humble and fragile among us, to give us his love,” Pope Francis said during the Angelus on his birthday Dec. 17 before thousands of faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

“This is the real Christmas. If we take out Jesus, what remains of Christmas? An empty festivity. Do not take Jesus out of Christmas! Jesus is the center of Christmas, Jesus is the real Christmas! Understand?”

Francis’s reference to the nativity scene is especially fitting, given that if was St. Francis of Assisi who according to tradition created the first crèche in 1223 in the small Italian town of Greccio. The Saint from Assisi had returned from a trip to Bethlehem, which had made a profound impression on him and left him with a clear image of what the night of Christ’s birth could have been like. Having received permission from the pope at the time, Honorious III, he decided to recreate the nativity scene in Greccio.

“There simplicity is honored, poverty is exalted, humility is lauded and Greccio is almost transformed into a new Bethlehem,” wrote Tommaso da Celano, Francis’s biographer.

The first nativity scene did not have characters representing the Virgin Mary, Joseph or baby Jesus. It was set in a manger with the bull and the donkey surrounding a portable altar where Francis reportedly wept as he sang the Gospel.

A “virtuous and sincere” knight, who was present at the event according to Tommaso da Celano’s rendition, was said to have seen Francis cradle a beautiful sleeping child. This image was the inspiration behind one of the frescoes in the Basilica of Assisi painted by the Italian artist Giotto.

What started in Greccio soon exploded to encompass all of Italy. Churches made it a must to recreate the nativity scene with statues and small icons and in time wealthy Italians commissioned splendid and detailed crèches to keep in their homes. In 1563 the Council of Trent set specific norms for the adoration of saints and relics and did not forget to mention the growing phenomenon of nativity scenes, giving them its stamp of approval.

The boom happened in the 1700s, when crèches began to make an appearance in the homes of all Italians. Naples is where the local tradition met with religion to create spectacular nativity scenes. The fish vendor, the beggar and the drunk made their appearance in the scenes, crowding the miniatures to assist the birth of Jesus. Famously, neighbors and families would compete every year for who had the largest and most extravagant crèche.

This is the strength of the nativity scene. Just as St. Francis brought the nativity from the distant lands of the Middle East to the familiar environment of Greccio, every region could recreate the mystery of Christ’s birth in a setting they could understand.

The nativity “doesn’t simply testify the birth of a child, but the placing of this Child in the fabric of relationships and human existence at which he is at the center,” said Cardinal Giuseppe Betori of Florence, former secretary general of the Italian Bishop’s Conference. “The crèche is a very efficient way to say that faith pervades life, the life of everyone, history, the story of a village, of a country, of a region are illuminated by that presence.”

For this precise reason it’s not uncommon for Italians to place their favorite soccer player or singer in their nativity at home, a custom that has allowed it to evolve and vary depending on the setting without losing its clear message. It makes sense that in the birthplace of crèches the message stuck.

At the very heart of the nativity scene is Jesus, and without Him the entire apparatus loses its meaning. No doubt the Sunday after Christmas the Italian pews will return to their desolate state, but on the 24th and 25th one can expect many Italians to be Catholic once more, kissing the foot of baby Jesus and insisting that no one touch their nativity scenes.