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St Francis and the Origins of the Presepio

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

St Francis and the First Presepio, Giotto

In December 1223, while St Francis was staying with some of his Franciscan brothers outside the town of Greccio, he felt moved by a desire to celebrate the approaching Christmas mass by replicating the scene of poverty and humility in which Jesus had been born. He enlisted the help of his brothers and a noble supporter of the Franciscans, Giovanni Villeta. In a nearby grotto, Villeta set a manger filled with straw and a table above to celebrate mass and brought ox and donkey to the cave. The stage was set. Friar John Speyer remembered that first Persepio sixteen years later in 1239 : “The hay in the manger was prepared, the ox and the ass were arranged around the manger, and the vigil celebration began with joy. A great multitude of people stream together … the night was filled with an unaccustomed joy and made luminous by candles and torches.” Giovanni Villeta said that St. Francis was so overcome with emotion at the sight, he picked up the carved image of the baby in the manger and the child “came alive” and smiled at St. Francis. This “Miracle of Greccio” is depicted in Giotto’s fresco cyle in the Basilica of St. Francesco in Assisi. What is certainly true were the words of Friar John, ” And so, a new ritual … is celebrated.”

The Feast of the Seven Fishes Or La Vigilia. We’ve never heard an authoritative answer as to why seven fishes but it is an entrenched Christmas Eve tradition. It takes awhile to settle on which seven fishes are one’s own favorites for this feast, but we have some excellent wine suggestions from Chain Bridge Cellars for various dishes. To begin the meal, (a marinated salad with crab, octopus and calamari at our house) Pra Soave Classico 2010. Moving on to the clams and muscles followed by pasta with red sauce (with lobster and shrimp), La Mondianese Grignolino. Finally for the main course (Bronzino, risotto and winter squash, broccolini) Taburno Falanghina. As for dessert, poached pears and a little Vin Santo and everyone’s ready for “a long winter’s nap.”

The Befana and the Feast of the Epiphany

The Feast of the Epiphany marks the end of holidays. The day is celebrated in many cities with a Procession of the Magi from the town hall to the Duomo . But that comes after the visit from the The Befana, a witch like character who delivers treats to children during the night on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany. As with most legends, there are many variations of this story and this is one of them: Long ago an old woman spent her days cleaning her home – dusting, polishing, sweeping from chimney to floor. One evening in the middle of her toil, there was a knock at her door. Broom still in hand, she opened the door and was startled to see three richly clad strangers. They told her they were following a star in search of a newborn king and asked if she knew where the child might be. The Befana was bewildered and said she knew nothing of such a child. The three gentleman asked her to join them in their search but the old woman declined saying she had too much housework to do, closed the door and resumed her endless sweeping. The three men regretfully left her and continued their journey. Not long after dismissing them, the Befana grew troubled. She couldn’t stop thinking about the three exotic strangers and the child they were seeking. Suddenly her housework seemed meaningless – especially as providence seemed to have chosen her, alone in her humble home, for such a invitation. What a fool she had been not to have seen that! Now she saw that she had made her own life so trivial by spending all of her days obsessively cleaning and scrubbing that she had missed the everything – even when the miraculous knocked at her very door. Maybe it wasn’t too late to find the three wise men, go with them and give her own gifts if they found the baby. Desperately, she gathered the most valuable objects she had to give to the child, tied them in a satchel, and ran out the door. She searched and searched through the night but she never found the Magi. Alone, she searches still and because her foolishness kept her from finding the baby they were seeking, she gives gifts to good children the night before the Feast of the Magi.

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