Francis exultant:  Rome wins the 2021 Game of Cribs?


Francis exultant:  Rome wins the 2021 Game of Cribs?



Christmas in Italy extends from December 8th, the festival of the Immaculate Conception to Befana January 6th. Although Rome` s loss of power means that the remnants of the extended Winter Solstice festival of the Roman emperors no longer offer a continual public holiday ,the period is well delineated. On Immaculata, the celebration of Mary's imagined immaculate conception, the pope visits a monumental column near Spanish steps in Rome, and  suddenly everywhere in Italy houses, trees  and surprisingly elaborate outdoor cribs  are illuminated from dusk to dawn.This spectacle continues until an ugly old woman, Befana,  riding a broomstick , who legend says  attempted to find Jesus like the Magi but got lost and  who is  now represented by  scary dolls ,   visits children who have hung out their stockings  overnight on 5th January. Good children receive presents and sweets whereas bad children are left with coal, these days black candy that stains their teeth. Latecomer Baba Natale, Father Christmas, has been inserted into these traditions bringing his gifts on 24th not the 25th December. But with the decline of the faithful he is presently gaining ground. Befana/ Epiphany being over the lights and cribs disappear overnight as rapidly as they appeared. Rome christianises all this, as best she can,  with holy water and blessings.


By tradition everybody also visits their local town crib, but also many tour the larger more elaborate cribs in the bigger towns and cities to witness ceremonies by more senior priests. Everything is more spectacular with  presepe vivente (living cribs) where actors portraying Joseph Mary the Shepherds and the Wise Men depict the Christmas story with life sized stables and real donkeys in impressive theatrical displays. All these cribs are peculiarly local with nods to local saints who are generally perceived as being more powerful.

For example, my area ,Umbria , is dominated by Francis of Assisi. The internet crib site for Umbria 2021 lists nearly 20 major crib spectacles.The hilltop Borgos and medieval piazzas of Italy lend themselves well to enforcing Covid rules. Francis set up the first crib scene in 1223 at Greccio, now home of the world's first Crib museum. He used  “a wax figure of the infant Jesus, costumed people playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and a live donkey and ox,” making this the first ever living crib. The Franciscan Sanctuary`s Crib Chapel was set up in 1228, the year of Francis Canonisation. Greccio the “Franciscan Bethlehem” lies just south of modern Umbria, and is a world pilgrimage site and tourist destination. 

The cribs north of Rome are generally an approximate reflection of the bible story , although the three life-size Magi in Orvieto,  last year had donned intensive care visors and were holding assorted vials of covid vaccine. But the Council of Trent did little to reform the south and Naples, which was a Spanish Dependency under the Bourbons, continued unhampered with florid displays after Trent. The extensive eighteenth crib at the Royal palace of Caserta near Naples (see illustration) ,which was a vital signals base in the 43 Allied Invasion, shows how far legend exceeds truth. In Naples the Via dei Presepi (Crib street- via San Gregorio Armeno) has dozens of crib shops which pre Covid bustled summer and winter alike. Crib making is a skilled career and proprietors will ship worldwide. The extra biblical figurines to populate a crib besides those of legend can be film stars , celebrities, politicians and sportsmen, alive or dead. The array is vast. Grinning Diego Maradona with angel`s wings is a favourite . 

Serena Bortone is anchor for the the popular Rai Uno daily culture and news TV show Today is another Day. Recently, following the usual format of Bortone in the studio and a live reporter on the spot, there was a piece reporting on business in Crib street during the pandemic with the reporter interviewing crib shop owners. One proprietor amazed her by producing a crib figurine of herself from amongst his ample stock! Regarding para-biblical legendary figures , some of which require the scene to include a mill , a market, a cave (Mary`s womb), a tavern, a well or a castle , but all relate symbolically to precisely understood superstitious stories. Beware of the figurine of the woman with the child, who is probably not Mary but Stefania. She was an unmarried virgin and as virgins were forbidden to venerate baby Jesus, she gained entry to the stable by carrying a stone in swaddling clothes. By a miracle, as she approached Jesus and Mary the stone sneezed and she gave birth to Saint Stephen, supposedly the real martyred deacon of the bible.

 Francis` seems to see himself as a modern-day Saint Francis of Assisi .In 2019 he elevated the status of the “Franciscan Bethlehem” at Greccio by despoiling “Rome`s Bethlehem” , St Mary Major of its fragment of the actual manger. This was removed after 1400 years from its golden reliquary on 22nd November 2019 and sent to the Church of St Catherine in Bethlehem after a brief exposition in Notre Dame Jerusalem. Instead, Francis raised the profile of the pre-existing interior 100 cribs display which moved out into St Peter's Square because of Covid. 

Francis then went to Greccio on 1st December 2019 and released the Apostolic Letter,  Admirabile Signum  on the “meaning and importance of the Nativity scene.”  He states “With this Letter, I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares. Great imagination and creativity is always shown in employing the most diverse materials to create small masterpieces of beauty. As children, we learn from our parents and grandparents to carry on this joyful tradition, which encapsulates a wealth of popular piety. It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived.” 


Advent in Covid 2020 saw the 100 Cribs exhibition in St Peter`s Square depleted of visitors, but things have picked up this year.The cribs “come from Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia, Kazakhstan, Peru, Indonesia, Uruguay, Colombia, Taiwan and the United States'' as well as from local Lazio schools. “Many of these nations are represented by their respective embassies to the Holy See,” with invitations issued to the ambassadors in the spirit of the Franciscan decree Tutti Fratelli . Rome`s bus company has used an old bus and a chocolate maker has made a crib of 220 pounds of chocolate . The large Peruvian crib has the bible characters in Peruvian dress along with  llamas, native birds, and native plants, reminiscent of the inculturation of South America by the Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth century. 

A QR code leads visitors to a wifi hotspot to see a nativity video on their phones without using their own data .The approach to St Peters ,the Via Concilliazione,  has been brightened by a Mexican contingent displaying 20 images of Christmas in the state of Puebla who have obtained rights to sell goods on Vatican premises. Any interested reader simply inserting “100 presepi in vaticano 2021” can see the whole spectacle. I could not help opening up my copy of the pilgrim's 17th century guide to the seven churches of Rome Memorie Sacre delle Sette Chiese di Roma to see how things have changed. The pilgrim arriving at  the relic of the most Holy Crib in Santa Maria Maggiore meditates  quietly on Simeon`s words from Luke 2 v 35  “A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” The closing Latin prayer reads very approximately  “Grant, we beseech Thee, that the new energy of Thy Only-begotten Son may deliver us from the flesh, which the robe of bondage holds under the yoke of sin.” We seem to be witnessing Apostasy in freefall. 

Clive Gillis