CHIAVARI, Italy – December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the day many Italians set up their nativity crèches. The crèches are an important part of the holiday, and are kept on display until January 6th, the feast of the Three Kings or Magi.
My friend Andrea told me he spends December 8th with his four-year old nephew Luca. They put together the pieces of the family crèche, and while they are doing that Andrea tells Luca the story of the nativity. As Luca’s godfather, it is part of Andrea’s responsibility to participate in Luca’s religious instruction, by teaching him about the birth of Jesus.
I don’t think the story I’m about to tell you is the same story that Andrea tells his nephew, as this is the story of how the crèche came to be, but I think you might find it interesting anyway. It is the story of the creation of the Christmas crèche and it starts with St. Francis of Assisi.
In the year 1223, St. Francis, was planning to celebrate Christmas in the town of Greccio, an old hill town of the region of Lazio. He had planned to say midnight mass at the chapel of the local Franciscan monastery, but he soon realized that the chapel would be too small to hold all the people of the town. So he found a space near the town square and set up an altar there.
The nativity story is taken from the accounts of the birth of Jesus as recalled in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke's narrative describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds, who then visit the humble site where Jesus was found lying in a manger, his bed a feed trough for cattle.
Matthew's narrative tells of "wise men" the Magi, who followed a star to the house where Jesus dwelt, and seems to suggest that the Magi found Jesus two years after his birth, rather than on the exact day. Matthew's account does not mention angels or shepherds, while Luke's narrative is silent on the Magi and the star.
The Magi and angels are often displayed with the Holy Family and the shepherds in nativity scenes, although there is no scriptural basis for their presence.
Nonetheless, St. Francis wanted to convey the story to the people of Greccio, knowing full well that like most people of that time, they were illiterate, and therefore not be able to read the story as set down by Mathew and Luke.
As he wanted to commemorate the birth of the Infant Jesus in the most serious and solemn way possible, but still give the people an idea of the event, he decided to prepare a manger. He took his inspiration from a recent trip to the Holy Land, where he visited the place believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.
After he got permission from the Pope, he put out bundles of hay, and placed the hay along with an ox and a donkey near the side of the outdoor altar he had prepared. Then he called the people together and with his makeshift manger in the background, he told them the story of the birth of Jesus,
Today, we still put out Nativity scenes, sometimes under the Christmas tree, or as most do here in Italy, on a table. But no matter where they are placed, they are strong daily reminders of that very special night.
Listed below are four towns where you can see a living crèche this holiday season, but there are many more towns throughout Italy where the nativity is recreated. If you are visiting Italy during this period, check with the local tourist office for events near you.
Living Creche, Greccio, Rieti
The home of the first living nativity.
24 December at 9:30PM; December 26-28 and January 1-6 at 5:45PM.
Living Creche, Morcone, Benevento
January 3-4 from 3PM to 7:30PM, and at 6PM and 8PM the story of the Navitity.
Living Creche, San Biagio, Mantova
December 25/26/29 , aand January 5/6/12 from 3:30PM to 7PM
Living Creche, Dogliani, Cuneo
December 23-24 at 8:30
Let us keep alive the true meaning of this season.