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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A Love That Moves the Sun and All the Other Stars

**This article was originally published (with photos) on RenaissanceSwag.com**

I first met Dante Alighieri in Piazza Santo Spirito in Florence, a city that in my eyes seems enchantingly frozen in the middle ages. I was studying at Middlebury College and had registered for a course on Medieval Italian Literature. After class I’d walk through the cobble-stoned streets of the Tuscan city, saunter past the dizzying string of glittering jewelry shops that gild the Ponte Vecchio, and make my way to the other side of the Arno river.

There are other piazzas I could have studied in, but they’re too big, too touristy, too crowded. The more unassuming Piazza Santo Spirito is tucked away in a cozy corner of Florence. On one side of the square is a basilica; Brunelleschi’s bare, unfinished façade subtly hides the fact that inside rests a treasure-trove of art. The rest of the piazza is lined with tiny cafés, rustic wine bars, and lunchtime trattorias.

Every once in a while the smell of freshly baked bread and ground coffee beans wafts through the air. While espresso-sippers, the occasional guitarist, monks, and merchants selling the days produce from their carrelli (carts) bustled about, I’d find a seat near the fountain and spend hours trying to decode the medieval Italian poetry that is Dante’s Divine Comedy.

At first, you might say that my relationship with Dante was a rocky one. It’s a bit like reading Shakespeare. In another language. In the medieval version of another language. Can you say difficult?!

But I like a challenge.

Like most relationships, ours took time, and a lot of dedication. After a few frustrating sessions, the meaning of Dante’s verses began to take shape in my mind, and the profound beauty of his poetry left me breathless.

What can I say? The man has a way with words.

Dante suffered two heartbreaks in his lifetime: his banishment from his beloved city of Florence (it’s a long story), and the death of Beatrice, who he loved dearly. Ohh did he love her.

When someone endures a struggle, he or she might find sanctuary in the church, sweat it out à la Hulk lifting weights at the gym, throw themselves into a new business venture, or dramatically chop off their hair, dye it purple and go for a whole new look!

Anything to take their mind off the pain.

Dante mended his aching heart by putting pen to paper. Or, should I say quill to parchment? So he wrote, and he wrote some more. He wrote his way through the unforgiving fires of the Inferno, up through the mountains of Purgatorio, and finally into bliss of Paradiso.

At the start of his epic voyage he explains, “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark woods where the straightway was lost.”

Most of us have been there at some point or other, had those moments where we feel completely paralyzed by grief, fear, or uncertainty.

How does he make it through the woods?

It’s love that pulls him from his state of bewilderment into a place of clarity and healing.

Don’t worry! I know that you’re thinking, but I’m not about to give you a lesson on the poetry of the Divine Comedy. You see, throughout the entire poem Dante struggles with a question that I think most of us try to answer throughout the course of our lives: What is true love?

His first encounter with it is in the Inferno. There he finds Minos, a hideous demon who, with his menacing tail, mercilessly hurls the wailing souls who tremor before him into the various levels of hell. Scary.

It’s the second circle of hell and there is no light here. The floor unsettlingly roars beneath Dante’s feet, and a violent wind relentlessly thrashes the moaning souls up and down and all around. They are the lustful. Among them are a few of our favorite lovers of all time: Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Paris, Tristan, Achilles, Semiramis, and Dido. But it’s when he reencounters his old friends, Paolo and Francesca, that he feels the most distress.

Long story short, Francesca was promised to marry Paolo’s brother, Gianciotto (aka Crippled John), a man who was as ugly in spirit as he was in appearance. One day, while Gianciotto was out, Paolo and Francesca read to one another the love story of Guinevere and Lancelot. Unlike his brother, Paolo was easy on the eyes, and Francesca we’re told, was a beautiful woman.

And so, it was over the amorous words of the legendary story that this handsome pair locked eyes. Unable to silence their desire for one another, they shared a kiss, fell in love, and consequently, tumbled to their ruin. (Shortly after, Gianciotto returned home to catch the lovers in the midst of their passionate affair and stabbed them both to death. Ouch.) With tears in her eyes Francesca tells Dante:

“Love which pardons no one loved from loving

Seized me so strongly with my pleasure in him

That, as you see, it still does not leave me.

Love led the two of us to a single death.” 

(Inferno, Canto 5, 103 – 106)

Upon hearing the gentle-hearted Francesca tell her story, Dante is so overwhelmed with confusion that he faints. How can it be that these two are doomed to such a wretched fate for falling in love? Was their crime so unforgivable that they should be damned to an eternity of being whipped around in a ferocious storm together? (It should be noted that he ignores the fact that they committed adultery. I think it’s because Francesca was given no choice in the marriage.)

I started thinking, doesn’t this happen to most people?

You meet someone. A stolen touch here, a tentative glance there. One moment you’re both temptingly waltzing around each other, hesitating. Am I imagining it? You aren’t.

Then there’s the kiss. Soft and slow, you feel it ignite every inch of your being. You’re both entranced with each other; he loves your eyes, you can’t get enough of his smile. You’re distracted and thinking of each other at work, counting down the minutes until you can pick up the phone and call.

And then for some reason or other, maybe it ends.

The problem, Dante learns, is that what he thought was love, two people only having eyes for each other and giving in to that whirlwind of fiery passion for one another, isn’t really love, it’s lust.

It’s in the ethereal clouds of Paradiso, where corporeal forms cease to exist, that his darling Beatrice, the ideal of beauty and grace, ultimately teaches Dante the meaning of true love. Here, light is everywhere.

Unlike Paolo and Francesca, Dante and Beatrice do not lose themselves in the depths of each other’s eyes. Instead, Beatrice’s eyes are firmly fixed on God, who exists in the highest circle of Paradiso, and Dante’s gaze follows.

You see, what Dante learns is that true love is more than just the romantic yearning that two people feel for one another.

True love is what happens when you choose to be with someone who inspires you to grow into a better version of yourself, who opens up your mind to new capacities, lifts you towards a greater divinity, and who helps you to see the good that exists all around us.


So really, we shouldn’t fall in love, we should rise in it.  


Why am I writing all this? Well, Valentine’s Day is coming up, and what better time to celebrate love, right? It’s also true that love is just something that’s been on my mind lately. I’ve wondered what it should feel like, when you know it’s real, what makes it last. At times I’ve doubted whether or not it even exists. That type of love, the kind my parents have after being married for 25 years plus, is it a phenomenon that’s gone extinct?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I can tell you the type of love that I’ve chosen to believe in. As children we’re taught that someday our Prince Charming will come galloping into our lives on a white horse, sweep us off our feet, and together we’ll live happily ever after.

We’re taught to think that we each have a soul mate, and when we meet that person and fall in love it’s bliss: two people living together in ultimate harmony. But I don’t think it always is, or that it should be.

Blame it on naivety, but I’m a big believer in the “spark.”

Before any sort of relationship can develop, there has to be something that draws you to the person. Maybe it’s their eyes, sense of humor, or the comfort you feel in hearing their voice. Chemistry and more than that, passion, is important. It’s what keeps us coming back for more.

But I think that to love, once the initial thrill of those things begins to simmer down, that’s a choice that we make. The first few months of a budding relationship, when you’re still discovering parts of each other, are always exhilarating, easy. And then life happens, and you’re faced with challenges that you both need to overcome. It’s at that point that we make the decision to overcome them together, or alone. To choose love, or not. And if we do choose it, doesn’t that make it all the more special?

I hesitate to say that love is not perfect, because I think that it is perfect… in its power to overcome imperfection.

Life is messy. We’re all flawed, and we’ve all made mistakes. Those are the things that make us real, beautiful, irreplaceable, strong.

True love isn’t the absence of imperfection; it’s what persists in spite of it.

It’s what elevates us and inspires us to see past those flaws, to recognize a person’s full potential and encourage them to see it within themselves too, so that they can project their light onto the world. And what could be more beautiful than that? Than finding someone with whom you know you can share yourself with entirely, who will love you not only for the pretty parts (that’s easy), but for the ugly parts too?

Call me crazy, but I think that’s a love worth finding. That’s the sort of love that parts seas, changes everything, or in the words of Dante, “moves the sun and all the other stars.”