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``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


Nativity Scenes

An Italian presepio

   
 
 
The beginning of Advent is the time to set up your Nativity scene ("presepio" in Italian). All of the figures are set out but for the Magi and Baby Jesus; the manger itself should be left empty until Christmas Eve, when Baby Jesus arrives at midnight. This sets up a mood of anticipation; everything is in place -- but He has not yet come. Some families have a tradition of "preparing the manger" by allowing the children each evening to place a single piece of straw for each good deed done during the day. By the time Christmas Eve comes, Jesus will have a soft bed to lie in.

The presepio, then, becomes a scene of drama, and just as the crib is empty until Christmas Eve when Baby Jesus is added, the Three Kings should be kept a bit away from the manger and moved closer and closer until they finally reach it, not on Christmas, but on the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelfthnight) which begins the celebration of Our Lord's showing His divinity to the wise men. Some families might start with the Magi in a totally different room and move them closer and closer each night. When they finally arrive on Twelfthnight, Baby Jesus can be crowned and adorned in purple, the color of royalty. The St. Barbara's Day custom of forcing branches of cherry trees to blossom (or germinating wheat, as per the French practice) comes into play with regard to the creche, too: the blossoms are used to adorn the crib throughout the Christmas season.


The first presepio was created by St. Francis of Assisi when he recreated the scene of Christ's Nativity in Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve of A.D. 1223. The Saint's first biographer, Bl. Thomas of Celano (d. ca. A.D. 1255), describes the scene:

There was in that place a certain man named John, of good reputation and even better life, whom the blessed Francis particularly loved. Noble and honorable in his own land, he had trodden on nobility of the flesh and pursued that of the mind. Around fifteen days before the birthday of Christ Francis sent for this man, as he often did, and said to him, "If you wish to celebrate the approaching feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and do what I tell you. I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by." Upon hearing this, the good and faithful man hurried to prepare all that the holy man had requested.

The day of joy drew near, the time of exultation approached. The brothers were called from their various places. With glad hearts, the men and women of that place prepared, according to their means, candles and torches to light up that night which has illuminated all the days and years with its glittering star. Finally the holy man of God arrived and, finding everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced.

The manger is ready, hay is brought, the ox and ass are led in. Simplicity is honored there, poverty is exalted, humility is commended and a new Bethlehem, as it were, is made from Greccio. Night is illuminated like the day, delighting men and beasts. The people come and joyfully celebrate the new mystery. The forest resounds with voices and the rocks respond to their rejoicing. The brothers sing, discharging their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night echoes with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger full of sighs, consumed by devotion and filled with a marvelous joy. The solemnities of the mass are performed over the manger and the priest experiences a new consolation.

The holy man of God wears a deacon's vestments, for he was indeed a deacon, and he sings the holy gospel with a sonorous voice. And his voice, a sweet voice, a vehement voice, a clear voice, a sonorous voice, invites all to the highest rewards. Then he preaches mellifluously to the people standing about, telling them about the birth of the poor king and the little city of Bethlehem. Often, too, when he wished to mention Jesus Christ, burning with love he called him "the child of Bethlehem," and speaking the word "Bethlehem" or "Jesus," he licked his lips with his tongue, seeming to taste the sweetness of these words.

The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied here and a marvelous vision is seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger, and he saw the holy man of God approach and arouse the child as if from a deep sleep. Nor was this an unfitting vision, for in the hearts of many the child Jesus really had been forgotten, but now, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life and impressed here by loving recollection. Finally the celebration ended and each returned joyfully home.

The hay placed in the manger was kept so that the Lord, multiplying his holy mercy, might bring health to the beasts of burden and other animals. And indeed it happened that many animals throughout the surrounding area were cured of their illnesses by eating this hay. Moreover, women undergoing a long and difficult labor gave birth safely when some of this hay was placed upon them. And a large number of people, male and female alike, with various illnesses, all received the health they desired there. At last a temple of the Lord was consecrated where the manger stood, and over the manger an altar was constructed and a church dedicated in honor of the blessed father Francis, so that, where animals once had eaten hay, henceforth men could gain health in soul and body by eating the flesh of the Lamb without spot or blemish, Jesus Christ our Lord, who through great and indescribable love gave himself to us, living and reigning with the Father and Holy Spirit, God eternally glorious forever and ever, Amen. Alleluia! Alleluia!

St. Bonaventure, who wrote another biography of St. Francis, described the institution of the crib like this:

Now three years before his death it befell that he was minded, at the town of Greccio, to celebrate the memory of the Nativity of the Child Jesus, with all the added solemnity that he might, for the kindling of devotion. That this might not seem an innovation, he sought and obtained license from the Supreme Pontiff, and then made ready a manger, and bade that hay, together with an ox and ass, be brought unto the spot. The friars were called together, the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises. The man of God, filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy.

Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis, the levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preached unto the folk standing around at the Birth of the King of poverty, calling Him, when he wished to name Him, the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him. A certain knight, valorous and true, Messer Giovanni di Greccio, who for the love of Christ had left the secular army and was bound by closest friendship unto the man of God, declared that he beheld a little Child right fair to see, sleeping in that manger, who seemed to be awakened from sleep when the blessed Father Francis embraced Him in both arms. This vision of the devout knight is rendered worthy of belief, not alone through the holiness of him that beheld it, but is also confirmed by the truth that it set forth, and withal proven by the miracles that followed it. For the example of Francis, if meditated upon by the world, must needs stir up sluggish hearts unto the faith of Christ; for even the hay that was taken from the manger by the folk proved a marvellous remedy for sick beasts, and a preventative against divers other plagues, God magnifying by all means His servant, and making manifest by clear and miraculous portents the efficacy of his holy prayers.

St. Francis's "Institution of the Crib" was captured in the painting by Giotto below (A.D. 1297-1300).
 

 
 
The scene of the Nativity is usually depicted as a cave or a simple wooden structure, but some manger scenes are set in churches or homes instead. Some show just the place of His birth, while others depict the entire village (these large depictions of Bethlehem are known as "belÚn" in Spain). Some shred time, depicting stories from the Old Testament alongside the story of the Nativity, and some shred space in the same manner, with the village looking very much like the town of the person setting up the scene. They can be incredibly complex or simple, made of fine ceramics or of wood or paper. But in all cases, the basics of the Nativity Scene are Mary (on Christ's right, or our left as we face the manger), St. Joseph (to Christ's left, or our right as we face the manger), at least one angel, the three Magi, at least one shepherd, a lamb as the shepherds' offering and symbolizing the Sacrifice of Christ, and the ox and the ass. That Jesus lay between an ox and an ass is ascertained from Isaias 1:3:

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood.

The presence of the ass also recalls Palm Sunday. In fact, it is said that as a reward for the donkey's using its breath to warm Baby Jesus, a Cross was marked on its and its progeny's backs so that Jesus would recognize it for use at His entry into Jerusalem.
Nativity, by Crocifissi (detail). Note the donkey praising Christ.
Other animals you might find in the manger scenes are the Magis' camels (added with the Magi on Twelfth Night), the peacock symbolizing immortality, and a cat -- usually a cat with kittens. The cat -- la Gatta della Madonna -- is based on an old Christmas legend that a tabby cat gave birth to kittens in the stable as Mary gave birth to Jesus. Said kitty purred Baby Jesus to sleep, and as a reward, the letter M, for Mary, was put on its forehead (see a picture of tabbies with perfect letter M's in the footnotes).

Other figures can be added, and often are, especially in Italy, Mexico, and Southern France, where exquisite and elaborate presepi are the rule. You might see a kneeling St. Francis, Mary's midwife, one of the Sibyls, La Befana (the old woman who visits children on Epiphany Eve) -- even popular contemporary figures. Townspeople are often added, especially in Italy, and in France, where the figures, called "santons," represent tradesmen and the old guilds.

In Italian presepi, you will also invariably find a shepherd-bagpiper, or "zampognaro." The zampognari figures are based on the Italian tradition of the Italian shepherds' (especially of Abruzzi and Lazio) coming down from the mountains at Christmastime, going door-to-door to play bagpipes to announce the birth of Christ. This tradition continues today, and is so beloved that the zampognaro appears in Italian presepi, sometimes accompanied by the pifferai (flute players) that often accompany the pipers in real life. Click here to hear the traditional Sicilian carol of the bagpipers, "Canzoni d'i Zampognari," lyrics (in a strange Italian) are below.

Quanno nascette Ninno a Betelem me,
E rannotee pa rea miezo giorno
Maje le stelle, lusteree belle,
Seve dettero accusi!
La chiu lucen to
Jet tea chiamma li
Magi, in Oriente
    When Christ our Lord was born in Bethlehem afar,
Although 'twas night,
There shone as bright as noon, a star.
Never so brightly, never so whitely,
Shone the stars,
As on that night!
The Brightest star went
Away to call the Wise Men from the Orient.

And here is the most popular of all Italian Christmas songs, one strongly associated with the music of the zampognari and similar to the song above: "Te Scendi Dalle Stelle" ("From Starry Skies Descending"), written by St. Alphonsus de Liguori (A.D. 1696-1787) and amended by Pope Pius IX (A.D. 1792-1878). Click here to listen:

Tu scendi dalle stelle
O Re del Cielo
E vieni in una grotta
Al freddo al gelo

O Bambino mio Divino
Io ti vedo qui a tremar,
O Dio Beato
Ah, quanti ti costo
L'avermi amato

A te che sei del mondo,
Il creatore
Mancano panni e fuoco,
O mio Signore

Caro eletto, Pargoletto,
Quanto questa povertÓ,
Piu m'innamora
Giacche ti fece
Amor povero ancora
    From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter's icy sting;

O my dearest Child most holy,
Shudd'ring, trembling in the cold!
Great God, Thou lovest me!
What suff'ring Thou didst bear,
That I near Thee might be!

Thou art the world's Creator,
God's own and true Word,
Yet here no robe, no fire
For Thee, Divine Lord.

Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant,
Dire this state of poverty.
The more I care for Thee,
Since Thou, O Love Divine,
Will'st now so poor to be.

Footnotes:
1 Two tabby tom-kittens, Rocco ("Rocky") and Mario ("Boots"), with perfect letter M's for Mary on their foreheads:


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