Monday, December 26, 2011

Buon Natale

And this will be a sign for you:  you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  Luke 2:12 

The medieval walled village of Laterina lies high on a hill in the Arezzo region of Tuscany, overlooking the Arno River Valley.  The community was about 6 KM from the farmhouse we were staying in and we drove by this walled fortress almost every day on our way to somewhere else.  As we passed by I would peer up at the walls, wondering what lay on the other side.  Laterina was not listed in any of our tour books and was not considered a sight of any monumental value in the eyes of Fodors, Frommers or Rick Steves, so we continued to drive by without pause.  

Finally, my curiosity got the best of me and on Sunday morning, December 11, when we had little on our itinerary for the day, I suggested to Tom and our friends that we drive up and explore Laterina.  They were game and we jumped in the car.  There was a light rain falling and the skies were gray.  We weren't expecting much and when we drove up to the walls, we discovered we needed to park outside the city and walk in.  We grabbed our umbrellas and began the trudge up hill, traversing slippery cobblestones and hoping that the outcome was worth the effort!  As we approached the city we began to see signs announcing a Christmas festival that day and soon, we were accompanied by Italian families with children, eagerly climbing up the steep walk to enter the city walls.  We looked at each other and grinned - this could be fun and interesting!  We'd already discovered the Italian tradition of building nativity scenes (Presepe) in their churches and communities and we began to see familiar words on the banners, announcing a Presepe ahead.   

As we turned the final corner we entered the main piazza of the village and there we discovered the Christmas festival.  Parents and children were scurrying about from booth to booth, playing games and competing for prizes.  Santa Claus (or someone dressed like him!) was visiting with children and handing out bags of goodies and food stalls and craft stands were setup in the streets.  Men were milling about, roasting chestnuts on fires for sale and sipping hot spiced wine.  Women were chasing after their excited children and calling greetings to one another, trying to keep up in the light rain on the slippery cobblestone streets.  Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" was crooning from a loud speaker and the sound of his mellow voice singing the traditional carol reverberated around the village, as it bounced off the old stone walls of the city buildings. 

What a unique treat!  This was not a Christmas festival for tourists, that much was clear.  This was entirely local and we were, to our best guess, the only Americans - or tourists, for that matter - in the entire piazza.  People were friendly towards us and as we milled among the craft stalls we began to pick up on a theme - there were stars with long tails above many of the doorways in the village streets and people were coming and going out of each open door.  They were talking and laughing excitedly.  We had seen the sign announcing the Presepe but had not yet found it and began to look around curiously. 

A young woman who spoke limited English saw our confusion and approached us with a friendly smile.  The village was hosting a Presepe contest, she explained.  Every family and church had built their own nativity scene and all were on display in their homes, church buildings, etc. Everywhere the star was displayed over the door, a Presepe was inside for viewing.  She quickly led us to the closest doorway and indicated we should go in and look around.  What we saw astounded us.  There were several nativity scenes, all created in a variety of materials and with a varied appearance, on display throughout the church.  They ranged extensively in their levels of complexity, from the simplest design created by two little girls aged 5 and 6, to an elaborate mechanical display with multiple moving parts, pieces and working lights.  We began to explore the doorways marked by stars - there were well over a hundred different displays, I'm sure.  Each was different then the other.  I did not envy those making the decision for the winning Presepe as all were beautiful in their own unique ways.  We became separated as we were looking around and as I stepped out of one house foyer and turned the corner, I found myself alone in a small medieval alleyway, with a light misty rain falling and the ancient beauty of the village surrounding me. 

Suddenly I heard the soft, sweet sound of a young girls voice singing "Silent Night" in Italian.  I didn't understand the words but I knew the song and I knew what she was singing.  The emotion of the moment struck me and before I knew it, I had tears streaming down my cheeks.  The beauty of the nativity scenes, the lilting sweet voice singing a universally cherished song and the realization that I was standing in a village over 1,000 years old and celebrating the events surrounding Jesus' birth with complete strangers, overwhelmed me.  The simplicity of his birth, born in a manger with a star proclaiming his blessed arrival and announcing him to the shepherds and wise men is a story that never fades and never loses its appeal to Christians around the world.

Buon Natale (Merry Christmas) to my friends and fellow Christians.  May his peace surround you and may you always hold the spirit of his birth in your hearts.

Tip:  Did you know that Christmas Carols and the traditional Nativity scene originated in Italy?  St. Francis of Assisi introduced the carol and the concept soon spread all across Europe.  He also created the first nativity scene using live animals and a manger strewn with hay to re-enact the story of Christ's birth.