Yesterday marked the final day for the demonstration of the Nativity. All around Italy the scenes were erected – from simple mangers to elaborate, functioning towns – in honor of Jesus’ birth. In Assisi, the town where the nativity is said to have originated by the hands of St. Francis, we had the opportunity to view many mangers from around the world, displayed in the heart-felt church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
Set in the valley below Assisi’s steep streets, the basilica was erected around the humble little chapel where St. Francis preached. We have found this structure to have much more soul than the grander, well-known church up in town with its frescoes and the saint’s remains. Here we encounter chapels filled with joyful music, groups of teens participating in Bible studies and Mass, and an air of lightness and spirituality. It feels warm and welcoming.
The manger scenes on display ranged from large, ceramic villages to simple, hand-knit figures. Those from around the world contained symbols and materials to denote that country’s culture. They were charming. In Rome, we toured the exhibit in Piazza del Popolo of 100 Presepi, again from around the world. Here we saw many whimsical representations, including a scene fancifully cut from CDs and DVDs and fashioned into stars, a stable, and the figures. Sounds strange, but it was adorable. Another was made from pencils, and there were several made by school children from various pasta shapes. I was glad to see that the tradition of macaroni-art is still alive and well.
But the best one by far was on display right here in Ascoli Piceno. In a little-known church on the edge of the centro storico we found the delightful presepe that comprised all of Israel and showed Egypt in the background. There were villages grouped in the background. In the fore, Bethlehem bustled with activity – the shepherds moved among their sheep (and even the sheep’s tails wagged); a blacksmith pounded iron; a woman baked bread while another mopped her floor (with the rag and brush action I’ve previously written about); someone drew water from a well and a man was grinding olives into oil while next door the mill turned to grind flour. In short, the entire town was busy going about their normal lives, while we had to search among all the activity for the cradle that held the babe. Much as we imagine the real event to have transpired.
Amazingly, though, they also had a lake with moving waves and ships with beacon lights sailing atop, and beyond were the barely-distinguishable outlines of the sphinxes and pyramids of Egypt. It was enchanting and captivating and elaborate.
These intricate displays obviously took much time to construct, but were only unveiled for display beginning on Christmas Eve. We missed out on many of them as we were gallivanting about the country with friends and family, so when we discovered yesterday to be the final showing, we high-tailed it around town to take in as many as we could. We became charmed by this annual tradition; we agreed walking from church to church was much more relaxing and culturally edifying than getting in our car to drive around neighborhoods looking at lights, as we’d done in Albuquerque. Granted, we missed our traditional luminarias, but this was a more than ample substitution. We loved the ingenuity, the simplicity of the scenes being played out in elaborate displays, and the chill air as we strolled. What a beautiful tradition.
copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider