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
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 they've done during the day.
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 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. This, according to the Catholic
Encyclopedia, is the first instance of a Mystery
Play in Italy. 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
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
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,1 described the
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
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, and, so,
all tabby cats today still proudly display M's on their heads.2
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 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 di 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
||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 to
listen in mp3:
|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.
Prayer to Jesus in the
O divine redeemer Jesus Christ, prostrate before Thy crib, I
believe that Thou art the God of infinite majesty, even though I see
Thee here as a helpless babe. Humbly I adore and thank Thee for having
so humbled Thyself for my salvation as to will to be born in a stable.
I thank Thee for all Thou didst wish to suffer for me in Bethlehem, for
Thy poverty and humility, for Thy nakedness, tears, cold and sufferings.
Would that I could show Thee that tenderness which Thy Virgin Mother
had toward Thee, and love Thee as she loved Thee. Would that I could
praise Thee with the joy of the angels; that I could kneel before Thee
with the faith of Saint Joseph; the simplicity of the shepherds.
Uniting myself with these first adorers at the crib, I offer Thee the
homage of my heart, and I beg that Thou wouldst be born spiritually in
my soul. Give me, I pray Thee, the virtues of Thy blessed Nativity.
Fill me with that spirit of renunciation, of poverty, of humility,
which prompted Thee to assume the weakness of our nature, and to be
born amid destitution and suffering. Grant that from this day forward I
may in all things seek Thy greater glory, and may enjoy that peace
promised to men of good will. Who livest and reignest, world without
1 Both Thomas of Celano's and St.
Bonaventure's biographies of St. Francis can be found in this site's Catholic Library.
2 Two tabby tom-kittens,
Rocco ("Rocky") and Mario ("Boots"), with perfect letter M's for Mary
on their foreheads: