GRECCIO, Italy (AP) — Pope Francis on Sunday hailed Nativity scenes as “simple and admirable” signs of Christian faith and encouraged their placement in workplaces, schools and town squares, as he bolstered a Christmas tradition that has at times triggered bitter legal battles in the United States.

Francis visited a hill town, Greccio, where St. Francis of Assisi, the pontiff’s namesake, re-enacted the first creche scene, using living persons instead of statues, likely in 1223, during a return journey from the Holy Land.

In Greccio, in the countryside outside Rome, Francis signed a document, known as an apostolic letter, stressing the importance of creche scenes to popular faith.

“With this letter, I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the Nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares,” the pope wrote in the letter, which was read aloud to faithful gathered inside a small, stone church in Greccio.

“Great imagination and creativity are always shown in employing the most diverse materials to create small masterpieces of beauty. As children, we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety,’’ Francis wrote.

“It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived,’’ he wrote in the letter.

Earlier in the day, while at the Vatican, Francis described a creche scene as “a simple and admirable sign of the Christian faith.”

Nativity scenes have triggered legal battles in the U.S. when erected on public property over the question of the separation of church and state. Controversies have made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In one recent case, a small city in the U.S. state of Delaware ordered a Catholic church to remove a Nativity scene displayed on city property.

Francis made no mention of the legal battles and civic disputes.

Instead, the pope stressed the message he said people could draw from recreating the humble scene, where the baby Jesus was placed in a manger because Mary and Joseph couldn’t find any lodging for his birth.

Francis said the Nativity scene reminds people that Jesus was “born in poverty and led a simple life in order to teach us to recognize what is essential and to act accordingly.’’

“The Nativity scene clearly teaches us that we cannot let ourselves be fooled by wealth and fleeting promises of happiness,’’ Francis said.

He noted how people delight in placing figures in the scene with no apparent connection to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.

“From the shepherd to the blacksmith, to the baker to the musicians, from the women carrying jugs of water to the children at play: all this speaks of the everyday holiness,” Francis wrote.

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Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.

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