The crib scene comes alive – literally – in the mountain villages surrounding Assisi. After all, San Francesco was the first to create a presepe vivente (living manger scene): in 1223, three years before his death, he decided to bring the Christmas story to life for the peasants of Greccio (northern Lazio).
His biographer records, “he recounted the poor King’s birth with tender compassion,” in front of a straw-filled crib, flanked by ox and ass.
This first “living manger scene,” was immortalized by Giotto nearly a century later in the “Greccio crib scene” in the fresco cycle of the Saint’s life in Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco.
And the “living crèche” still lives: in tiny hilltop Umbrian medieval villages, the locals bring alive the first Christmas on December 24, 25 and 26 – and on Jan 6th (when the Kings arrive to adore the Christ Child).
In bellissimo torchlit medieval ambiances, the mountain villages become Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, all aspects of village life re-enacted.
Vendors – flanked by young apprentices – shout their wares at market stalls and innkeepers roast meats at open fires. As you wander the presepe vivente, you can stop in at the carpenter’s workshop, the baker’s oven, the potter’s kiln, then watch the weaver at the loom and the blacksmiths forging.
Main highlight – logicamente! – is the stall where an ox and an ass backdrop Mary and Joseph tenderly caring for the Baby Jesus (most recently-born child in the village).
Late on December 24th, young shepherds carrying lambs on their shoulders kneel to in homage to the Christ Child. The Three Kings, in splendid bejeweled robes, will solemnly kneel before the Crib on January 6th.
Years ago, we all headed up to the presepe vivente of Armenzano one freezing cold winter night. After botteghe (workshops) visits, we stopped at the inn to warm up. Hot mulled wine served by local village women in Biblical dress did the trick.
And then a trek up the crumbling stone steps to Armenzano’s ruined castle tower to Herod’s court. Bearded and commanding Herod was surrounded by voluptuous courtesans: two knelt at his feet, caressing his legs as another kept his golden goblet replenished with wine. He startled his courtesans – and 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 almost every Italian a natural actor?