Yes, you read the title correctly: Italy’s first nativity is celebrating its 799th birthday this year. This iconic tradition that is at the heart of Christianity and still an integral part of the Christmas ritual is found in the village of Greccio in central Italy.
The Beginning: Saint Francis of Assisi
Many people don’t realize that it was Saint Francis of Assisi who on Christmas Eve in the year 1223 recreated the night that changed the world forever, the night that Christ was born. For nearly fifty years, Greccio’s pro loco association has been reenacting the simple event that forever changed history in six scenes using live actors.
Act one takes us back to the year 1209 when a simple man comes to the isolated mountain village of Greccio to live alone leaving his worldly possessions behind. The villagers are poor and life is challenging and they cannot relate to Francis’ choice to deliberately live in poverty. The scene tells of the night when Francis tamed a wolf that had been attacking village livestock.
The next several acts ensue demonstrating how Francis through his acts of kindness and heartfelt words came to be accepted by the people of Greccio. According to his biography written by Tommaso da Celano, Francis reveals his vision of reenacting Christ’s birth in Greccio and asks for the townspeople’s help.
On Christmas Eve in the year 1223, villagers from Greccio and other nearby towns as well as many friars gathered to witness the very first nativity. Da Celano recounts a live baby lying in the manger the villagers had prepared just as had occurred that night in Bethlehem.
Visiting Greccio Today
You can witness Italy’s “Little Bethlehem” in person by visiting Greccio on the following days: December 24 at 10:30 pm; December 26 and 28 at 5:30 pm; and January 1, 6, 7, 8, 2023 at 5:30 pm.
In addition to the reenactment, the mountain village that sits at 700 meters above sea level (2,300 feet) is definitely worth visiting at any time of year, but especially during Christmastime when you can also buy local handmade goods and specialty foods at the traditional Christmas market.
There is a nativity museum displaying nativities from all over the world. Another attraction that draws visitors to Greccio is the Sentiero degli Artisti, or the “Artists’ Road” made up of 26 fantastic murals depicting Saint Francis’ life by artists from all over the world.
If you have more time, you can also visit four Franciscan sanctuaries including the Greccio Sanctuary, the Fonte Colombo Sanctuary and Foresta Sanctuary in nearby Rieti, and Poggio Bustone Sanctuary in Poggio Bustone.
English speakers from all over the world refer to the representation of that fateful night in many ways depending on their regional dialect: nativity scene, crib, and crèche are the most common. However you choose to call it, one thing is certain, after Bethlehem, Greccio is where it all began and it will surely capture your heart.
Continue reading about other amazing places in the Rieti area.