The Crèche is Alive (Literally!) in Umbria
The crib scene originated in Assisi with St. Francis who was the first to create a “living manger scene”. In 1223 (3 years before his death), Francesco decided to celebrate the memory of the birth of Christ at Greccio (south of Assisi, in northern Latium). He had a straw-filled crib prepared, with ox and ass nearby. His frati minori (“little brothers” – to be called “Franciscans” one day) were all invited and the people came in crowds.
His biographer tells us that Francesco stood before the crib, preaching to the people about the birth of the poor King with tender compassion. A knight, John of Greccio, who was a great friend of the Saint, said that he saw a Child asleep in the crib and that Francesco gently took the Baby in his arms and seemed to wake Him up. This was the first “living manger scene”. Nearly two centuries later, the great Giotto will immortalize the Greccio crib scene in the fresco cycle about the life of St. Francis in the Upper Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi.
In commemoration of St. Francis’ first “living” crèche, in many of the tiny walled medieval villages in the hills and mountains of Umbria, the villagers present presepi viventi (re-enactment of the Nativity) on Christmas Eve, again on Christmas Day, on Dec 26th, and on Jan 6th (when the Kings arrive to present gifts to the Christ Child).
In the bellissimo medieval ambiences lit by torchlight, the people transform their tiny mountain villages into Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, re-enacting all aspects of village life at that time.
Visitors merge into these presepi viventi, passing the market stalls where vendors shout their wares, flanked by little apprentices. They wander in and out of the inns, the carpenter’s workshop, the baker’s shop, the potter’s workshop, then stop to watch the weaver at the loom and the blacksmiths forging. Parents and children are all eager to arrive at the stall where an ox and an ass look on as Mary and Joseph tenderly care for the Baby Jesus (most recently-born child in the village!). Late at night on December 24th, young shepherds carrying lambs on their shoulders will come to pay homage to the Christ child. The Three Kings, in splendid bejeweled robes, will solemnly kneel before the Crib on January 6th.
One year (our three children all in grade school then), we all headed up to the presepe vivente of Armenzano, tiny mountain village close to us (and not far from Assisi). Freezing cold that winter and after visits to all the botteghe (workshops), we stopped at the inn to warm up. Hot mulled wine served by local village women in Biblical dress did the trick. One more stop: we didn’t want to leave the presepe before a trek up crumbling stone steps to Armenzano’s ruined castle tower. What a scene there! Herod’s court. Bearded and commanding Herod was surrounded by voluptous courtesans: two knelt at his feet, caressing his legs as another kept his golden goblet replenished with wine. He startled his courtesans – all of us! – when he leapt out of his throne, threw back his ruby – colored velvet mantle and launched into a furious tirade about his hated rival the new King.
“Look!”, exclaimed our Keegan (ten at the time), “That’s Maestro Guerrino, our gym teacher!”
Maestro Guerrino was a mediocre gym teacher but he was a star King Herod (after all, isn’t every Italian a natural actor?)
Note: The presepe vivente is yet another exemplar of Italian passione: after all, who else but an Italian would use their pre-Christmas days (less shopping time!) getting ready to spend their Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day, Dec 26th, January 6th (all national holidays) in a living re-creation of the First Christmas?!
For more on Italian passione, click here
To see these Umbrian presepi viventi, see these YouTube videos:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hegHhw2p8T0 (All the villagers prepare for their presepe)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asVtJQpd4Vo (comment in italiano!)