Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - online book

The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages.

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THE CHRISTIAN FEAST
with a Bethlehem scene with a real ox and ass. About fifteen days before the Nativity, according to Thomas of Celano, the blessed Francis sent for a certain nobleman, John by name, and said to him : " If thou wilt that we celebrate the present festival of the Lord at Greccio, make haste to go before and diligently prepare what I tell thee. For I would fain make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships ; how He lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by." The good man prepared all that the Saint had commanded, and at last the day of gladness drew nigh. The brethren were called from many convents ; the men and women of the town prepared tapers and torches to illuminate the night. Finding all things ready, Francis beheld and rejoiced : the manger had been pre­pared, the hay was brought, and the ox and ass were led in. "Thus Simplicity was honoured, Poverty exalted, Humility com­mended, and of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem. The night was lit up as the day, and was delightsome to men and beasts. . . . The woodland rang with voices, the rocks made answer to the jubilant throng." Francis stood before the manger, "overcome with tenderness and filled with wondrous joy"; Mass was celebrated, and he, in deacon's vestments, chanted the Holy Gospel in an "earnest, sweet, and loud-sounding voice." Then he preached to the people of " the birth of the poor King and the little town or Bethlehem." " Uttering the word ' Bethlehem ' in the manner of a sheep bleating, he filled his mouth with the sound," and in naming the Child Jesus " he would, as it were, lick his lips, relishing with happy palate and swallowing the sweetness of that word." At length, the solemn vigil ended, each one returned with joy to his own place.38
It has been suggested by Countess Martinengo39 that this beautiful ceremony was " the crystallization of haunting memories carried away by St. Francis from the real Bethlehem"; for he visited the east in 1219-20, and the Greccio celebration took place in 1224. St. Francis and his followers may well have helped greatly to popularize the use of the presepio, but it can be
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