The presepe or nativity scene made its first appearance in 1223 in the tiny village of Grecio in Umbria when it is said that Saint Francis wanted to depict the scene of Jesus’ birth to the townspeople and from that time on, the nativity scene has been an integral part of the Italian Christmas tradition. The elaborate models, some life-size and some in miniature, are erected on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8). On Christmas Eve the baby Jesus is added to the display and finally on Epiphany (January 6) you will witness the “arrival” of the Three Kings. The detail and beauty of these crèche scenes are remarkable. You can see them in the piazza and inside churches, often indicated by a shooting star placed over the door inviting you to come in. The scenes have waterfalls, moving parts, nods to modern culture (I saw one with an Obama figurine this year) and twinkling stars lighting up the sky. One can’t help but be moved.
The most remarkable of all the nativity scenes I have witnessed over my years in Italy was the living nativity that I went to on a windy and cold Christmas Eve. From Assisi we made our way to Armezano, another little hilltown which for the time being had been transformed into the town of Bethlehem. With our hands wrapped around terra cotta cups of hot mulled wine, we made our way through the village. There were sheep and goats milling about, big torches lit the way and every member of the town was dressed in period costume. We walked through town and were drawn into the stable where Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus sat on the ground with only a pile of hay as cushioning. There was a warm glow in the barn and a sense of peace and love that I found almost miraculous. Merry Christmas indeed.
Peace and love to you all,