This coming December, St. Peter’s Square will be adorned with a nativity scene from the Rieti valley in central Italy to commemorate the 800th anniversary of when St. Francis of Assisi created the first live nativity scene in the town of Greccio, in 1223.
The Vatican’s Christmas tree will be a silver fir from the Alps, as it will come from the municipality of Macra in the Piedmontese diocese of Saluzzo in northern Italy. These Christmas decorations will be unveiled on December 9 and will remain on display until January 7, 2024.
In 1223, the St. Francis Assisi created the first nativity scene. That same year, Pope Honorius III approved the Franciscan Rule, which was to govern the nascent community of the Friars Minor. To celebrate this double anniversary, the Vatican’s nativity scene will be decorated with a Franciscan flair.
Recalling St. Francis’ Greccio nativity scene
The crib in St. Peter’s Square will bring visitors back to Christmas in 1223 and will be inspired by Franciscan writer Tommaso da Celano’s account of how, after St. Francis returned from a trip to the Holy Land, he wanted to commemorate the birth of Christ in a village that reminded him of Bethlehem. This was Greccio, a small town in the Rieti valley in central Italy, that is nestled in the rock and is located 700 meters above sea level.
The Vatican’s nativity scene and its life-size terracotta figures will represent the Greccio grotto, which Pope Francis visited in 2019. The crib will feature a Franciscan figure celebrating mass in the presence of St. Francis carrying Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Next to him will be St. Joseph in adoration, as well as a donkey and an ox.
The structure of this nativity scene, which will be set on an octagonal base symbolizing the 800th anniversary of this event, is intended to recall the rock of the Greccio sanctuary. Around it, a basin will represent the Velino river that runs through the Rieti valley. The work, designed by artist Francesco Artese, will also feature links to four Franciscan sanctuaries and the town of Rieti.
The Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall, where the Pope presides over general audiences in the winter, will also have its own crib from Rieti, which will be fashioned from thousands of tesserae of Venetian glass. In addition to the Holy Family, St. Francis, and St. Clare will be part of this scene created by mosaicist Alessandro Serena di Spilimbergo.
A tree decorated with edelweiss
St. Peter’s Christmas tree will be transported to Rome from the province of Cuneo, around 700 kilometers away from the capital. Standing at 82 feet (25 meters) high, it was selected from the upper Maira Valley, named after the river that flows through this forested Alpine region.
The tree is from the municipality of Macra, made up of villages that are located around 900 meters above sea level. The small community of mountain parishioners who live in the area, who are very committed to preserving their traditions, the press release explains, had the idea to donate one of their trees to the Vatican.
In an ecological spirit, the tree will be adorned with thousands of edelweiss, flowers typical of the valley and that grow in the wild at an altitude of 1800 meters. The ones that will be used to decorate the tree will have been grown in lower plains by the firm Piumatto of the Edelweiss in Villar San Costanzo.
Inauguration on December 9
The inauguration of the nativity scene and the lighting of the Christmas tree will take place at 5 pm on Saturday, December 9. Cardinal Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, President of the Governorate of Vatican City State, and Sister Raffaella Petrini, Secretary General of the Governorate, will attend the ceremony. The delegations from Rieti and Macra will meet Pope Francis in an audience earlier the same day.
Pilgrims and tourists coming to Rome for the end-of-year celebrations will be able to admire the Vatican decorations until January 7, 2024, the feast of Christ’s baptism, which marks the end of the liturgical Christmas season. The crib will then be put on permanent display in the town of Rieti.
The Pontiff traditionally comes in person to gather at the foot of the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square on December 31, after the last vespers of the year.