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
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!
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.
"Institution of the Crib" was captured in the painting by Giotto below (A.D.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
A te che sei del mondo,
Mancano panni e fuoco,
O mio Signore
Caro eletto, Pargoletto,
Quanto questa povertÓ,
Giacche ti fece
Amor povero ancora
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.
1 Two tabby tom-kittens, Rocco ("Rocky") and Mario
("Boots"), with perfect letter M's for Mary on their foreheads: