Greccio, birthplace of the nativity scene

MARIELLA RADAELLI

Adding to its friendly people, superb medieval architecture and fresh mountain air, Greccio is permeated by spirituality and peace as Christmas fills a winter wonderland with good cheer. The old hill town, where the first-ever Christmas nativity scene was created by none other than St. Francis, embraces its history and welcomes 100,000 visitors every holiday season.

Overhanging the Velino River on a spur of Monti Sabini, the village in the province of Rieti has become known as the Holy Valley of Rieti due to its four important hermitages. At 750 meters above sea level, pilgrims today really enjoy pristine Christmas magic.
Christmas nativity history
Cave where Saint Francis of Assisi staged the first-ever nativity scene on Christmas Eve in 1223.

Rome is just 60 miles south as they follow the Via Salaria, the ancient route traveled by St. Francis. Assisi is 56 miles to the north.

Friendly locals point me in the right direction to climb up. “Up, up, again,” they say.

From the road below, I admire the stunning sanctuary known as the Franciscan Bethlehem: A four-story building that rises straight up from the edge of a sheer cliff. I am particularly headed to a magic grotto excavated into the stone, the site where Saint Francis of Assisi staged the first-ever nativity scene on Christmas Eve 1223 with a simple manger, ox and donkey.

Every year, the scene of the holy couple, shepherds, wise men and attendant livestock attracts thousands of people from across the world to where Francis is credited with creating the first crèche in history.

The cave was incorporated into the Chapel of the Crèche in 1228, the year Francis was canonized, and is still adorned with vibrant, outstanding side-by-side 14th century frescoes by a painter from the school of Giotto that were recently restored.

The Greccio nativity depicts Francis wearing a deacon’s white dalmatic while on his knees adoring Jesus along with the nativity in Bethlehem with the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus.
St.Francis, Greccio
A candlelit procession walks up the mountain to celebrate the re-enacted living nativity as it happened in Greccio eight centuries ago.

St. Bonaventure tells the story of Francis that Christmas Eve in Greccio in his Life of St. Francis:

“It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff.”

“Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant so marvelous sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep (…)”.

Above the nativity cave is the first tiny church to be dedicated to St. Francis after his canonization, and the original 13th century wood dormitories built by his friars shortly after his death in 1226.

International visitors come over to take a look at the hermitage where St. Francis rested for a few days, probably several times, from 1209 until 1223. Here, Francis slept in an impossibly small room and in another rough rock cell outside where the bulging mountain forms a wall.

Some 100,000 people visit Greccio during the Christmas season, including about 50,000 who attend the several re-enactments of the living nativity scene on Christmas Eve at 10:30 p.m. and on Dec. 26 and 30 at 5.30 p.m., and on Jan. 1, 5, 6 and 7 at 5:30 p.m.

A candlelit procession walks up the mountain to celebrate the re-enacted living nativity as it happened in Greccio eight centuries ago when Francis realized his dream with the aid and support of local nobleman Giovanni Velita.

Professional actor and director Paolo Fosso guides more than 50 volunteer background actors, actually enthusiastic locals that intermingle with spectators along alleyways illuminated by flaming torches. The most authentic Christmas experience comes to life in spellbinding realism.

“Those who attend our living nativity scene return home with a cleaner, free and Franciscan spirit,” says Federico Giovannelli, vice mayor of Greccio.

It looks look like you stepped back in time here in the valley of the crèche.

Greccio is a little nook of spirituality. The spirit of Francis permeates the air, with forest of ilex, giant firs and holm oaks all around.

The former Church of Santa Maria is worth a visit. It houses the Museo Internazionale del Presepe, where nativity scenes from across the whole world and remarkable renditions made by contemporary artists are presented to the public.