• Right: the fabulously adorned crib scene at the Church of Aracoeli and (below) the Fransiscan Father brings tlw carved figure of the Christ Child from the glass case which holds, it safe until Christmas.
IN TODAY'S consumer oriented society the transcendental Christmas's values are too often suffocated by commercialism and relegated to a secondary position. Most especially in pluralistic societies, gift giving and holidaying have supplanted the once predominant religious celebration.
However,in Catholicdominated Italy, Christmas is still a predominantly religious commemoration. Indeed, the crib, or creche, symbol of the spirituality of Christmas, was born in Italy 750 years ago.
To Romans, the month-long Christmas season — from the crowning of the Virgin Mary in Piazza di Spagna, the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 to the -feast of the Epiphany on January 8 means numerous church services and visiting some of the world's most famous cribs.
According to tradition, St Francis of Assisi, during one of his frequent stays at the Sanctuary of Greccio, in order to honour Christ on his birthday re-created, in 1223, that first manger scene on full scale proportions and using live animals. Greccio, about one hour north of Rome and known as the "Franciscan Bethlehem" honours this tradition of a living crib each year with a candlelit procession on Christmas Live led by gonfaloniers in medieval costumes and heralds on horseback. At midnight a child is placed in the crib and medieval songs are sung during the first Mass of the day.
Until 1870 pontiff's celebrated the first Mass in the Oratory of the Crib at the Basilica of St Mary Major. Since then, popes have presided over the first of three Christmas Day Masses with the faithful in St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Many of the nativity scenes in Roman churches are of such value and beauty that they remain open all year to the public. Two of the most well known can be found in the Basilica of Saints Cosmos and Damian with its 18th century masterpiece. and in the church of Cuore Immaeulato di Maria. The list of cribs worth visiting is almost as great as the number of Roman churches — over 500 — but hose of major artistic or historical importance are San Ignazio, the Basilica of SS. XII Apostoli, Santa Maria del Popolo, Santa Maria in Via and the church of Gesu with its animated nativity scene of falling snow, moving clouds, and appearing and disappearing angels.
Beneath the high altar of the Basilica of St Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) is the reliquary of the Holy crib, said to be the crib in which Christ was born, but whose historical peregrinations are uncertain. The crib, five pieces of crudely finished wood bound together by metal bands, is exposed on the 25th of each month and is carried in solemn procession around the magnificently illuminated Basilica on Christmas eve.
Perhaps the most festive religious celebration occurs at the church of Aracoeli (Altar of Heaven) on Rome's Capitoline Ilill. A statue of the child Jesus, il swum) bambino, said to be carved from the wood of one of the olive trees of Gethsemane, reposes during the year in a glass case over art altar in the sacristy but on Christmas eve is brought to the crib of Aracoeli's famous nativity scene. Romans fill the church and gather on its 124 front steps to listen to the pastoral music of the zampagnari, — shepherd pipers who traditionally come to the cities at Christmas to serenade the Madonna at her many street shrines. The bagpipers, in their colourful costumes — sandals with criss-cross leather thongs. velvet jackets and sheepskin vests and chaps and billycock hats — fill Rome's churches, piazzas and fashionable streets with their music.
Rome's city government sponsors two nativity scenes, which have become a must for both Romans and visitors alike. The first is at Piazza Navona, backdropped by the splendid Fountain of Neptune and is executed in a classical design by three contemporary Italian artists.
The second manger scene, on the first landing of the famed Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna, is an exquisite 19th century wood carved reproduction, crafted with an attention to fine detail that transports the viewer to Bethlehem of 2000 years ago.
A relative newcomer on the Roman Christmas scene is the Exposition of ('ribs which in its first three years attracted tens of thousands of visitors. The sixweek exposition, usually held in the parking area of Villa Borgliese park from December 23 to the end of January. presents hand made cribs from over 50 countries executed with extraordinary imagination and skill.
The vast display offers nativity scenes from miniature to life-size proportions and features an incredible variety of artisan techniques using such diverse materials as ceramics, woad, tin, ivory, ebony, dried herbs, porcelain, bottles and sea shells. Each is created entirely out of a single material.
For those not yet satiated with cribs a visit to the Museum of Cribs — open from December 23 to January 31 — is a requisite. The museum features nativity scenes and thousands of creche figurines donated by over 30 countries. The most recent addition is a magnificent crib donated by the city of Cracow in honour of Pope John Paul.
Commercialisation has, of Course, crept into it. But Rome, with its pagan Christian legacy, supports well the easy juxtaposition of sacred and profane. Perhaps the best example of the profane is the bazaar of Christmas gifts, exquisite hand fashioned ornaments and decorations, !looks, toys, seasonal sweets and nativity sets which fills the splendid and noble Piazza Navona. Almost a hundred booths fill the elliptical piazza which was once the stadium of the Emperor Domitian and which has been called "the supreme baroque stage setting for the pageantry of life in 17th century Rome."
Romans although they decorate their homes less than say the Americans, do attach great importance to the crib and yearly buy new figurines at Piazza Navona to add to their manger set.
Gifts are exchanged twice during the Roman Christmas season — once on Christmas day when Pablo Natale (Santa Clause) makes his rounds and again on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Then a white haired hag who travels on a broom, leaves gifts for children wherhave been good and pieces,orearbone — a Christmas candy similar in appearance to coal — for those who have not.
The most completely profane
and hair-raising for the uninitiated — moment of the holiday comes on the stroke of midnight at the New Year. Throughout the year, Italians set aside pieces of broken dishes. household appliances, used
furniture, pillows, old books and the like and in a gesture perhaps symbolic of saying goodbye to one's past troubles, simultaneously throw them all out the window.
Given the fact that nearly all Romans live in apartment buildings the result is imaginable — a deafening crash, junk-lined streets, and a tremendous headache for visitors unaware of= this custom.
. In defence of Romans it must be said that the city passes out an extra number of trash bags during this period. and each resident does his share of cleaning up the morning after.
While a programme of austerity. especially after the 1973 oil crisis, has forced Rome shopkeepers to renounce the brilliant and colourful lights that once bejewelled the city's most fashionable areas they have compensated by lining the streets with Christmas trees and ornamental plants. External finery is minimal but the spirit of Christmas in Rome will last as long as there remains even one crib,