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Christmas 2023: Vatican Commemorates 800th Anniversary of St. Francis's First Nativity Scene with Special Display
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Vatican City - December 18, 2015. Christmas tree lighting in St. Peter's Square on December 18, 2015.

Diving deep into 800 years of rich history, the Vatican unveils a mesmerizing Nativity display and monumental Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square, honoring St. Francis of Assisi's world's first living Nativity scene.

Marking a dual anniversary of 800 years since St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in Greccio and Pope Honorius III approved the "Regola Bollata" for the Friars Minor, this year's Nativity display in St. Peter's Square draws inspiration from the Valley of Reatina, in the Diocese of Rieti. Additionally, the monumental Christmas tree gracing the Square originates from the high Maira Valley in the town of Macra, located in the Diocese of Saluzzo and the province of Cuneo.

The traditional inauguration of the nativity scene and the lighting of the Christmas tree is slated for Saturday, December 9, at 5:00 PM in St. Peter's Square. The ceremony will be overseen by Cardinal Fernando VĂ©rgez Alzaga, President of the Governorate of Vatican City State, alongside Secretary General Suor Raffaella Petrini. Prior to the evening's events, Pope Francis will grant an audience to delegations from Rieti and Macra, presenting the official gifts.

The nativity display in St. Peter's Square seeks to evoke the atmosphere of Christmas 1223, the year St. Francis, having returned from a journey to the Holy Land, wished to commemorate the birth of Jesus in Greccio, a village reminiscent of Bethlehem. Expert artisans, guided by the designs of Francesco Artese, have crafted life-sized terracotta figures dressed in 13th-century attire, paying homage to the world's first living nativity scene as described by Thomas of Celano.

This year's display also pays tribute to the four Franciscan shrines and the city of Rieti. The scene presents an artistic representation of the first Nativity, featuring a friar celebrating mass before an image of the grotto of Greccio, with St. Francis holding the baby Jesus beside the Virgin Mary and a kneeling St. Joseph. This entire setup is set on an octagonal base, commemorating the 800th anniversary of the event.

In the Paul VI Hall, thousands of Venetian glass tiles will depict the Nativity. Welcoming the Christ child are St. Francis and St. Clare, embodying the essence of the Franciscan universe. The masterpiece, created by mosaic artist Alessandro Serena from Spilimbergo (Pordenone), will find a permanent home in Rieti after its Vatican display.

The white fir tree, soaring nearly 25 meters high, hails from Macra's lush green alpine valley. Residents of Albaretto in Macra, proud of their mountain heritage and committed to renewal, initiated the generous donation of the tree to Pope Francis. The gesture underscored their solidarity with the Pontiff and was made possible with support from the town of Cuneo.

A unique feature this year is the tree's decoration, emphasizing care for our common home, reflecting the spirit of Pope Francis' encyclical, "Laudato si'." Thousands of edelweiss flowers, symbolizing snow and the unique character of the Maira Valley, will adorn the tree. Notably, these alpine flowers typically found above 1800 meters in elevation, are cultivated in the plains by Edelweiss of Villar San Costanzo, ensuring their preservation in their natural habitat.

The tree and nativity scenes will remain on display until the end of the Christmas season, culminating on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord on January 7, 2024.


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