Over the years my travels in Italy have taken on a deeper meaning, well beyond the casual tourist, beyond the taste traveler, beyond the travel writer. My road trips are often off the tourist radar and off the beaten track. I’ve seen the usual monuments, works of art and ancient ruins but from a different view. My Italian family and friends have become my personal docents, teaching me to travel like an Italian to discover an Italy way beyond a show and tell tour, often to a time and place I least expected. Yes I did say time. No I haven’t discovered the secret behind H.G. Well’s time machine, paradoxes or traversable wormholes. The evocative landscape of Italy has the potential to take you to another time if not literally than figuratively with places and people who lived in the history of its land. I have felt this way in Ravenna, in Ferrara and Florence, in Siena, Venice and certainly in Rome but nowhere more than in Assisi where the footsteps of saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings echo through time.
Assisi is a hill town in Umbria and together with the monastery at La Verna, in the Casentinesi Forest of northeastern Tuscany, is a spiritual center for the followers of Saint Francis. Francis believed that the ethereal message of Christmas needed a tangible expression. He wanted the Feast of the Nativity to be more than a story from the past. He wanted to remind people of the real reason we celebrate Christmas. He decided to do something dramatic for the time and arrange a special celebration on Christmas Eve in the village of Greccio where he would create a living manger scene. Francis had real people portray the shepherds, Mary and Joseph. He brought a donkey, cows and sheep in from the fields near the village to complete the scene. In the manager was a life sized wax figure of the Infant Jesus.
Over time the Nativity Scene or presepio, as it is called in Italy, spread throughout Western Europe and many people created nativity scenes in their towns, villages and homes to commemorate the birth of Christ and travel back in time to that night in Bethlehem to recreate Christmas.
*Nearly every Italian town has a presepio, often with life-sized crèche figures. Some of the most famous are in Greccio, Naples, Verona and the Basilica of Saint Cosmas & Damian in Rome. Commissioned by Charles ll, it measures 45 by 20 feet and features hundreds of wooden figurines.