Greccio still stages a live Nativity each year

St Francis staged the first Presepe Vivente in Greccio just north of Rome.

Philip Biss.

Go to picturesque Greccio, perched high in the Sabina hills overlooking Rieti this Christmastide and enter the spirit of the first living nativity scene, believed to have been performed on Christmas Eve 1223.

Only about an hour from Rome, Greccio is where the first ever Presepe Vivente was enacted. Today, this scene continues almost unchanged from when St Francis and his monks took part in their act of devotion, using a crib and farm animals to represent the humble nature of Jesus' birth

Although a symbolic crib had appeared at Christmas in many early Christian churches, the scene developed over the years into what we recognise today: the manger of hay and the infant adoringly watched over by his mother Mary, while his father, Joseph, stands guard and the three Magi stand outside alongside their camels. Not surprisingly, there were no live camels present in Greccio in 1223, and nowadays the burning torches and fires that lit up that first nativity have given way to modern lighting and a grandstand to sit in and watch in relative comfort.

Apparently, St Francis had visited Bethlehem in 1219 and while in Rome early in 1223 had asked the pope if, typical of his personal devotion to poverty, he could celebrate Christmas by emphasising the poverty surrounding Jesus' birth.

The original performance now extends to five other scenes showing St. Francis's close connection with Greccio and how the nativity play came to be organised there on Christmas Eve 1223.

Descriptions of the scene that cold night in 1223 can be found in the works of his two biographers: Thomas of Celano, who was present that night, and St Bonaventura.

Performances take place under the Franciscan monastery, 1km north of the village, on the following nights this year:

24 December at 22.30 and 25, 27 December and 1-3, 6 January at 17.45.

Warm clothing recommended.

Getting there:

By road from Rome: Take the Via Salaria to Rieti and then turn left and proceed about six kilometres towards Terni, turning off left to Contigliano and then following the signs for Greccio.

By bus from Rome: Cotral bus from Tiburtina to Rieti. Then Cotral bus from Rieti to Greccio

By train from Terni in the direction of Rieti, alighting at Greccio station and taking a local bus.

For further information see: Proloco www.prolocogreccio.it