Happy Epiphany! Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, marking the arrival of the three Magi at the stable in Bethlehem. It’s also a national holiday in Italy, although this year it’s less confusing for tourists since it fell on a Sunday.
And today was therefore a special day at Rome’s annual living nativity, located in the ancient ruins of the Lateran Gate. This fabulous display has been presented daily since Christmas, and is a real treat for young and old alike! The people of one of Rome’s parishes put together this re-creation of the ancient city of Bethlehem every year, and it is particularly realistic when you consider that this site really existed at the time of the birth of Christ.
Here’s the censor’s desk. We all know that this really existed–after all, the census called by Emperor Augustus was the only reason why Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, right? He sits here busily writing government documents, something which we are all familiar with. Some things just don’t change!
Down the road is the palace of Herod. He sits here glowering on his throne …
… while his wife preens in the room next door, playing with her jewelry-box.Or maybe that’s Herodias, his non-wife: you may recall that St. John the Baptist would later call out Herod for his adulterous relationship with his brother’s wife. But that’s a few years down the road.
Next you come across the bakery, where the baker-lady was busily making … real pasta. That’s probably the one element of the entire display that isn’t terribly authentic, as the ancient Romans (and the Jews who lived in the Roman Empire at the time) weren’t big pasta-eaters. True, pasta did exist–and Roman soldiers used to carry sheets of it in their bags, the ancient version of a meal ready-to-eat!
Speaking of whom … there naturally were a few Roman soldiers on hand. Of course back in the day, they would have been shunned by the local population; but here they’re a big attraction, as children like to pose for photos with them. What a difference 2000 years makes …
This gal runs the olive-oil shop. Olive oil was used not only for food, but also for lighting lamps.
So no town could have survived without her! And yes, she really is making olive oil here: it’s the coarse, less refined kind, but it truly is being made by hand, right before your eyes!
Not far away, the tax-collector is on hand, ever ready to put a damper on any holiday celebration. With his rolls of parchment and his scales, he happily takes your money and makes a note of it.
A more pleasant store-front is the carpenter’s shop. This is the same man who plays the carpenter’s role every year, and he seems to genuinely know what he’s doing. In front of his shop (not shown in the photo) are some stools and wooden placards advertising the nativity-display, which he apparently made himself. The real deal!
Affixed to every stall, you’ll find a sign like this one, which is located at the carpenter’s shop. Each identifies the type of business, and then includes a biblical passage that is directly relevant. In this case, the sign contains a verse from Matthew’s Gospel, noting that Joseph himself was a carpenter–a totally respectable profession. And this year, they even managed to translate the Bible-verses into multiple languages, keenly aware that there are many tourists among the visitors to this modern-day Bethlehem!
Another very realistic scene is the wool-carder. This woman is actually carding wool, using a (pretty vicious-looking) tool with metal teeth, that forcibly lines up the strands of wool and breaks down any knots, in preparation for making thread. And yes, there’s plenty of wool in Bethlehem, as you’ll see shortly…
By the way, it was FREEZING in this outdoor display, which is why there were plenty of candles (as seen in the foreground here) and bonfires burning all around. You can bet that these folks are wearing plenty of woolen clothing themselves, underneath their ancient garb!
The woolen-thread weaver’s sign includes a quote from the prophet Isaiah, “Like a weaver, You have rolled up my life… from day to night you bring me to an end.”
And speaking of wool … you can’t have a nativity scene without shepherds! This year,
there are a number of apprentice-shepherds (if such a thing exists); it’s a great “job” to give to the younger members of the parish. Wouldn’t you have enjoyed being a shepherd as a child, if you’d had the chance to deal with real-live sheep? And little lambs too, of course.
And finally, you reach the real reason for the season! The Holy Family in the stable, with
Baby Jesus being played by a doll at the moment. Yes, there is a real baby, but he/she really can’t be on-hand for so many hours in the cold, day after day … so they naturally have to have a back-up!
And how authentic would the stable be, if there weren’t an ox and ass in the vicinity? Yep, that’s right, they’ve been shipped in for the occasion. This adorable donkey looks to be pretty young, and yet he was very well behaved …
… as was the ox right next to him, much bigger but just as docile.
You can perhaps credit the serene surroundings for their calm demeanor–but it’s much more likely that they were content with the hay surrounding them. They happily munched non-stop, quite oblivious to the crowds and the picture-taking–reminding us of a couple of teenagers at an all-you-can-eat buffet!
Of course today, the Feast of the Epiphany, we had an added attraction (as if there isn’t enough already): the Three Kings put in an appearance. Bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were led–most appropriately–by a little drummer-boy.
There’s actually a lot more in this modern-day Bethlehem, but you get the idea. And since it’s displayed in actual Roman ruins that are roughly contemporaneous with the birth of Christ, it’s even more authentic! Sure, you can put on a living nativity anywhere in the world–but how many parts of the world have got genuine structures from the period to house their nativities in?
Amazingly, this wonderful spectacle is free. The parish accepts free-will donations, which go toward covering the costs of the display; all the work is done by parishioner-volunteers. Needless to say, there’s a lot of effort involved! We hope they enjoy this as much as we all do, because everyone will be looking forward to a repeat-performance again next year!