I woke up at 4:30 am to dress and pack my bags. Lightning lit up my little room as I prepared to leave. With a hesitant spirit, I left the medieval hotel into a torrential downpour as I made my way, alone, through those ancient streets. Would I encounter the ghosts of St. Francis and his little band of tattered monks….?
“The man of God (Francis) stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy.” St. Bonaventure (contemporary of St. Francis and biographer)
His face was wet with his own tears as Francis of Assisi stood before the people of the little town of Greccio one Christmas Eve long ago. With great tenderness and humility, he told them the story of the first Christmas. Behind him was a cave with two of the village people dressed as Mary and Joseph, and a wax baby representing Jesus. An Ox and donkey stood beside them. Mary was bending over the baby lying on a bed of straw. Francis turned to behold the love of his life, the Babe of Bethlehem, and he fell down in weeping adoration.
“The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many with brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”
Greccio, a little town in Umbria, had experienced the extraordinary that Christmas eve in 1226. St. Francis of Assisi had assembled a live nativity scene in a cave on the outskirts of town to show the humble birth of Christ. The townspeople gathered around, full of wonder and expectation.
Prior to this, mass on Christmas eve was spoken in Latin, which the people could not understand.
“the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis…. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor king; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”
As the hay was gathered up later and fed to the animals, a miracle occurred. The cattle were cured of their diseases. The people believed that God had honored his servant Francis.
Francis encouraged the people to reject hatred and embrace love, with the help of God.Whether you remain a sceptic or not, the message of St. Francis resounds with hope for our individual worlds as well as the one we all share.
May his words echo down through the centuries once more and minister to our hurting hearts the true meaning of the love that entered our dark world two thousand years ago.
The Feast of St. Francis was just ending the day I arrive in Assisi. Games and merrymaking brought many pilgrims from far and near to take part in the celebration of their most beloved saint. Francis’ basilica flows with heavenly music as choirs and orchestras let lose their poetic melodies. souvenir booths line the streets selling mementos while costumed revelers stroll the piazzas in medieval attire. This Feast commemorates the saint’s transition from this life to the afterlife. It is Assisi’s biggest day of the year.
The October weather is pleasant as I step off the train from Rome. The surrounding hills and valleys of Assisi bask in a golden autumn glow that looks surreal. Pilgrimswho made the trek to the party begin to disperse as early morning fog dissipates from the valley floor. Little Assisi becomes its normal self once again. I haul my pull-bag and nap sack up the brick alleyway to a tall medieval house. A small room awaits me in the home of this private residence, complete with a little cot, a dresser, and a chair with desk. Enchanted with St. Francis since I was a small child, I’m eager to discover more about him during the week of my stay.
Medieval Assisi’s brickwork architecture and clean wooden doorways cause me to feel as if I’ve stepped through a portal into the 13th century. Shops line the streets with local tradespeople at work making their pottery, shoes, breads and oils. Wine shops, aromatic trattorias, clothing boutiques, well-stocked book shops, gift shops and bakeries beckon to those passing by. Espresso and fresh-baked croissants infuse the early morning air.
Assisi keeps me fully engaged as I immerse myself in walking the path of Francis.
Birdsong trills through the air as I hike down the trail from the medieval village to San Damiano, the church St. Francis restored in 1205. Olive groves accentuate the countryside and the air is fresh and sweet. It is early Sunday morning and the church service begins inside the medieval chapel. Old and untouched, I almost expect to see Francis and his brothers walk through the door and take part in the humble service.
” All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” St. Francis
My week in Assisi flits by all too quickly. On the eve of my departure, harmoniously angelic music plays inside St. Francis Basilica. An orchestra fills the entrance accompanied by candlelight which flickers and illuminates Giotto’s colorful frescoes. Women in black dresses and high heels accompany men in suits. I’m caught up in the sublimity of class and elegance on this warm enchanted evening. Little did I know that the following morning would temporarily quench the spell.
Rain hammers against my windowpane as flashes of lightning illuminate the tiny room. It is 4:30 am. Oh fun…twenty minutes to be out the door and down the hill to catch my bus from medieval Assisi to the train station. I stumble and shiver in the dark while gathering my things together into one small malfunctioning pull-bag.
It doesn’t take me long to be on my way. St. Francis and his brothers come to mind as I turn the corner from my front door and drag my bag behind me down the wet cobblestone streets under a relentless downpour of rain. Their resolve to live in poverty causes me to wonder, in the midst of these miserable elements, how they did it. Dressed in only a habit and no shoes, they endured all kinds of weather, begging for their next meal. During my stay, I thoroughly enjoyed walking, in shoes and sunlight, where his twelfth century bare feet had trod.
Only a few lamps from small windows illuminate the darkness. As I brace myself against the pelting rain, I seek temporary refuge in a doorway. But the thresholds are shallow and provide no shelter. By the time I reach the bus stop, I’m drenched to the bone. My jeans and jacket cling to me like skin. Water runs off the ends of my disheveled hair.
The bus takes me to the station where I board my train to Florence. By the time I step out into the Renaissance city’s promising streaks of sunshine a few hours later, I’m beginning to dry out and warm up. Cradling a warm cappuccino, I take a moment to ponder my week in Assisi. It was magical. St. Francis and his friends are where I left them ~ dwelling within their cobbled medieval hometown of Assisi, virtually untouched by time.
Imagine two rival families in the same village fighting for supremacy, leading to a period of enmity for over two centuries. Not unlike the Capulet’s and Montague’s of Romeo and Juliet, the Fiumi and Nepsis families from 1300 Assisi did just that. Today it is re-enacted, although in a much more neighborly way, which culminates toward the end of the Calendimaggio.
A most worthy event, the Calendimaggio was originally an ancient celebration of Spring May Day. Today it is a three-day festival held the first Thursday, Friday and Saturday of May. Traditionally, the festival is dedicated to St. Francis, since he was known to be a poet, troubadour and dancer in his youth. Locals carry on by dressing up in lively and colorful medieval costumes while putting on three days of festivities and competitions with love songs, games and events. Groups of revelers serenade throughout the streets of town, bringing a spirit of romance and chivalry.
The long-standing rivalry between the warring families is a more recent historical addition to the festival. Deep divisions were created and hatred continued until the mid 1600’s, when the Papal Governor, Giovanni Andrea Cruciani, organized the town into three districts. As a result, the hatred slowly gave way to harmless rivalry, making the Springtime ritual develop into a playful contest between the two rival sides. Peace and Friendship celebrated the annual Return of Spring.
A Festival Queen is chosen through an animated contest of medieval games, held in the Piazza del Commune, the main piazza of Assisi. Flag throwers show off their expertise as Minstrels sing troubadours songs to the new Queen. Illuminated by torchlight, the games and contests continue.
Parades, floats, and animated dancing flow throughout the flower-strewn cobbled streets of Assisi.
The festival leads to the famous Palio, a contest between the two neighboring districts of Assisi. They are the Magnifica Parte deSotta and the Nobilissima Parte de Sopra. This event mirrors the centuries old feud between the Fiumi and the Nepsis families.
Archery, Crossbow and Chivalrous contests thunder throughout the Piazza del Commune. The two opposing sides perform amidst a spectacle of color and flurries of banners. A sporadic drumroll keeps the tension high. The grand award is called the Palio, a banner the prevailing “Parte” will keep for a year. Calendimaggio is Assisi’s only secular celebration even though the banners, at the beginning of the festivities, are blessed in the churches.
On the final eve a panel of judges, composed of historians, directors and musicologists, award the team that displays the best interpretation of celebrating the return of Spring. All done in good jest, the festivities are capped off with feasting and well-wishing. Until next May, the winning team reigns as supreme.
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