The town of Greccio, nine miles from Rieti in the region of Sabina, northeast of Rome, is twinned with the city of Bethlehem for a very special reason: In 1223 Saint Francis decided to enact there the first living nativity scene in the history of Christianity. The event is also depicted in the cycle of frescoes on the life of Saint Francis attributed to Giotto in the Basilica of Assisi.
Legend has it that the only character who was not a live actor, the baby Jesus, came to life during the enactment, which was celebrated by Saint Francis on Christmas Day inside a cave.
According to a local tale, Saint Francis chose to build one of the valley’s four monasteries on this cliff when a local child threw a firebrand that hit the rock face. It was taken as a sign of God’s will, and construction of the monastery began in 1228. Every year, during the months of December and January, live enactments take place at the foot of the monastery.
The monastic complex of Greccio is composed of a sanctuary that contains the original chapel, a church (with a crypt that preserves a fresco from the 14th-century with the nativity scene), the ancient refectory, and a museum/collection of nativity scenes from around the world.
A hiking trail leads to the top of Monte San Francesco, where a chapel has been built to remember the spot where Saint Francis meditated in a hut.
Know Before You Go
The sanctuary is open everyday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the winter and 7 p.m. in the summer.