We are now in Advent so I suppose it’s all right to talk about Christmas according to that primary school headmistress in Gravesend, England who forbade her pupils to talk about this winter festivity before December, threatening those children who defied her ban with cuts to their playtime privileges!
Fifty years ago a traditional English Christmas would generally have had no crib and a traditional Italian Christmas would have had no tree. Now it’s all rather different. The Celtic symbol of life through death, the evergreen, which becomes transmuted into the Cross (the Christmas holly wreath, with its red berries representing drops of Christ’s blood, is part of the same thing), is found everywhere in Italian homes celebrating Christmas. That very Catholic representation, the crib, has now certainly found its way in English churches, and, perhaps in many more homes too.
The custom of making a representation of the Nativity is mainly an Italian one and traditionally dates back to St. Francis of Assisi when in 1223, at Greccio (a little town near Rieti, Lazio) he created the first living depiction of the Nativity. Thomas of Celano, chronicler of St Francis’ life briefly describes the scene: “There’s the manger. Bring some hay, lead in the ox and the ass. We honour thereby simplicity: poverty is exalted, humility is praised and Greccio becomes almost a new Bethlehem”.
Of course, there are some significant differences between this description and that of the modern “presepe” (crib). The crib is living i.e. people represent the characters – not statues – and the main protagonists, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, are absent. There are also some differences with the Gospel accounts; as former Pope Ratzinger mentioned, no animals are actually mentioned there! Furthermore, the place of the Saviour’s birth is ambiguously set either in part of a building or a cave.
The animals, the humans, the divine, the cave, the house, are brought together with agricultural and urban occupations and architectural and pastoral scenarios to form the classic Italian presepe which has a million varieties and some very well-defined regional differences: a presepe in the Neapolitan tradition is rather different from one in the Bolognese one. Some are set in the Holy Land itself, some in an Abruzzi mountain community, some in a renaissance city, some in a Calabrian fishing village. For me the most poignant representation was set in Ground Zero when I visited Bagni di Lucca for the first time in December 2001.
This extraordinary crib was installed in what now the Banca di Roma building in the market square. It must be remembered that just over three months had passed since the greatest peacetime atrocity against civilians had been perpetrated by muslim extremists.
Again, for Christmas 2011, that crib was recreated in the church of the Crucifix in Lucca – a very beautiful church once on the list of buildings at risk, but now thankfully being restored. It was called “Ground Zero ten years ago-ten years after” and was again created by the scene designer Alessandro Sesti who dedicated it to the tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York City, an event which truly changed the world.
Something has changed for us this year too. Since 2007 we have been participants in the living crib of Equi Terme where we have played the parts of wise man, Roman governor, Governor’s wife or Cialde (traditional wafer) makers. This year it will not happen since the June earthquake has made most of the little town still off limits and clearly dangerous to the public who flocked to it and gave the community a much-needed added source of funds. It is truly so sad and a tragedy to this benighted and largely forgotten earthquake-victim (see post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/midsummer-nights-nighmare/) but we hope to take part in it again next year. These pictures were taken from the first time we enacted there in December 2007.
In the meantime keep your eyes peeled for local living cribs which will take place at such places as Barga and Monti di Villa. Among these are the following in our area:
Sunday 15th December at:
- Anchiano (Borgo a Mozzano, Lu)
- Monti di Villa (San Cassiano, Bagni di Lucca)
- Treppignana – Fosciandora (Lucca)
Saturday 21 December, Ghivizzano (Coreglia Antelminelli)
Sunday 22 December, Gorfigliano (Minucciano)
Monday 23 December, Barga (Lucca)
And, of course, there are magnificent crib exhibitions in many Italian cities and churches. One of the best is that displayed inside Verona’s wondrous Arena. I visited this in December 2006 and these pictures are taken from then.
But one doesn’t have to go that far since on Saturday 7th December Bagni di Lucca’s own traditional crib exhibition will open outside and inside the Circolo dei Forestieri. Since Bagni di Lucca has been a traditional place of “figurinai” ( plaster-of-paris statue makers.) I’m glad that this year too an exhibition will take place here.
Add to these the street Christmas markets and Barga’s own chocolate festival! Who wants to say “humbug” now…