Even if we don't celebrate them ourselves, some holidays are so much a part of our society that we assume they've always existed. Such is Christmas Eve. It doesn't seem too far-fetched to imagine the proto-Christians huddled in their catacombs, singing carols and exchanging gifts. After all, they gave their very lives for Christ: wouldn't they have celebrated his birthday?
The truth is, they probably didn't, or if they did, the practice died sometime in the Dark Ages. Our modern celebration of Christmas dates back "only" to the 13th century, when a modest monk who later was canonized as St. Francis decided he "would like to portray the Child born in Bethlehem, to see the hardships a newborn babe must endure, how he was placed in a manger and how he lay in the straw between the ox and the ass."
So it was that on December 24, 1223, in the very epicenter of Italy, a group of barefoot monks led a merrily singing throng of local residents up the slopes of Mount Lacerone to Greccio, a simple monastery that was little more than a few interconnecting caves. In one of these, a layer of straw had been spread on the stone and beaten earth floor and a primitive crib had been placed in a corner. Around it were a donkey, an ox and a dozen peasants Francis had "borrowed" from the feudal lord. All night long, a procession of villagers braved cold and snow to see the unique tableau, their torches illuminating the night. The grotto was far too tiny to accommodate everyone, so they shivered outside in the woods.
The ritual has been celebrated ever since, in Greccio and around the world. The grotto has remained virtually unchanged, with the exception of a nativity scene fresco painted on the wall by a follower of Giotto about a hundred years after Francis died in 1226. If you are planning to spend the Christmas season in Rome, you might consider driving the 60 or so miles to Greccio to witness the world's first Christmas Eve procession. It's a simple ceremony, really, but it's so vivid and moving that you will immediately understand why the shy, unworldly monk who created it was a 13th-century superstar who could mobilize entire villages at the drop of a hat. If you do make this pilgrimage, reward yourself with a day of skiing at nearby Terminillo: the slopes will belong to you on Christmas Day!
by Kristin Jarratt
The Living Nativity Scenes take place each year between December 24 and January 6. Greccio and the other Sacred Valley hermitages (Fonte Colombo, Poggio Bustone and La Foresta) are all located within 15 miles of Rieti, an industrial center about 60 miles east of Rome. Although the ACOTRAL bus line links the two cities, there is no public transportation to the monasteries, so we suggest you rent a car in Rome. The quickest route is the Salaria (highway 4) to Rieti, then the provincial road to Terni. Soon you'll see plenty of bright yellow signs marked "Santuario." (For Terminillo, continue on the Salaria past Rieti.) The hermitages are open year round, seven days a week. During the week they are virtually deserted; on weekends, you're liable to run into weddings.
Our favorite place to stay in the area is Hotel Miramonti in Rieti. They have an excellent restaurant or, for delicious local dishes, try Le Vigne (Via della Repubblica 14/a, Contigliano), a simple trattoria that serves a pleasant house white and fantastic bucatini all'amatriciana. Il Nido del Corvo is a slightly more expensive restaurant in the town of Greccio.