Location of the First Nativity Gives New Insight to Old Christmas Carols
As I stood there overlooking the Rieti valley, in the hilltop town of Greccio, the lyrics to more than one much-loved Christmas carol came to mind.
Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
No wonder St. Francis traveled so far from the Umbrian town of Assisi to find the perfect spot, along the Monti Sabini range of the Apennines, to establish the first nativity scene here in Italy’s central region of Lazio. Our Lord was born in a cave in an obscure village under a starry sky.
Oh, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Greccio couldn’t be more obscure. It is nearly 60 miles south of Assisi and for pilgrims, it’s a long trek up very steep stairs even after driving a good 15 minutes into the mountains. Although our pilgrimage group arrived in the morning, it is easy to imagine what this incredible sight would look like at night. The location is so peaceful and allows for unobstructed views that seem to go on forever.
Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin Mother and child.
Holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Complete with oxen, donkeys, and hay, he is said to have desired to do everything he could to make the scene come as close as possible to that first Christmas night. As the creche came to life, St. Francis was joined by many in the nearby towns and villages, and the idea of reenacting our Lord’s birth quickly caught on.
St. Francis established the first creche in Greccio in 1223. Greccio was chosen because it was close to where many of his friars lived, and it was also a place of great solitude. And it’s still like that today. Unfortunately, because it is truly one of those off-the-beaten-path locations, not many tour groups make the journey to this incredible sight visited by many popes, including Pope Francis and John Paul the Second. It truly is a place of solitude; away from the hustle and bustle of the world; a place where one can pause and ponder, which was exactly what St. Francis was hoping his friars, and others visiting the Greccio creche would do. Our pilgrims spent an entire morning here and had the opportunity to have Mass at the church next to the creche grotto. There was indeed a great deal of pausing, pondering, as well as the shedding of grateful and joyful tears.
In addition to traditional Christmas carols popular with the English-speaking world, for me and my husband, who are of Italian American heritage, a much-loved Italian Christmas carol also came to mind. As we reflected on the miracle of Christmas and the phenomenal beauty of the countryside, we could almost hear my father, Michael Annunizato Squillace, singing as he did at every Midnight Mass for years, Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle, You Descend or Lay Down from the Stars.
From starry skies descending
thou comes the glorious King.
A manger low thy bed
In winter’s icy sting.
Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle was written by St. Alphonse Liguori in 1732. Silent Night and Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, were written in the 1800’s, oldies but goodies that now, after visiting Greccio, have new and deeper meaning thanks to Francis of Assisi. St Francis realized not everyone, especially the people of his day and age, would be able to travel all the way to the Holy Land to venerate the actual sight of Jesus’s birth. So, he enabled Christians to bring Bethlehem into their own homes and villages. I’m so glad he did, and I’m sure you are as well. So, this Christmas, take a cue from St. Francis. As you are putting out your nativity scene, spend some additional time pondering the greatest gift of all. Buon Natale.
Deacon Dominick & I wish you a Blessed and Merry Christmas!
Photos: Teresa Tomeo