Il Presepe: The True Meaning of Christmas

December 25th, 1 BC. Excitement stirs through the crowded stone streets of Bethlehem. The marketplace bustles with life as the baker busily rolls the freshly made dough, the weaver knits together the threads of his richly colored carpets, and the carpenter saws away at his wood. In the countryside, women collect water from the well and fill buckets of freshly picked grapes in the vineyards. The shepherd herds his sheep, the hen cluck and the donkeys crush olives to make oil. The smell of spices and freshly baked bread wafts through the wooden doorways of the villager’s candle-lit homes, and the melodic whistles of children playing their flutes echoes through the streets. On this night, as the sun sets behind the mountaintops, the stars in the night sky shine brighter.

Something is coming.

In the distance, trotting down a mountainside, are three regally dressed men riding on camels, carrying precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are the Three Kings, Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior, and they have journeyed from far away lands to arrive at a small wooden stable, and witness the birth of the newborn King.

It’s a joyous event. One that once a year, every year, comes to life in my living room. It’s all thanks to my remarkably talented and artistically gifted mother. She’s a beacon of light who, in my eyes, quite mystifyingly creates beautiful things using one essential tool: love. She pours love into all that her finger tips touch. Her contagious passion awakens the holiday spirit within us all.

The tradition has become my favorite part of the season. At nighttime, I nestle up next to our fireplace and watch the glowing lights that adorn the Presepe as they twinkle, ever so softly. A warm reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.

According to legend, il Presepe, or the Nativity Scene, was invented by St. Francis Assisi in the year 1223 in the quaint Italian mountainside town of Grecio. St. Francis thought that the chapel of the Franciscan hermitage was too small to accommodate the congregation for Midnight Mass, so he set up the altar in a cave near the town square instead. According to the writings of St. Bonaventure in his Life of Saint Francis, “Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”

Buon Natale a tutti, vicini e lontani!

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