An Alpine Christmas Play

“We saw as in a vision the shepherds who watched their flocks by night; we heard as in a dream the song of glory to God and peace to man which, floating from the Syrian skies, has been borne to the farthest ends of the earth.”

Joseph Becker / Library of Congress

Here and there in the Alps, in lonely valleys, the Christmas night is marked by the performance of a miracle play, or, to speak more precisely, a dramatic interlude which treats of the visit of the shepherds to the stable at Bethlehem.

Some of us have looked with mortal eyes on the fields of Bethlehem, which are still so fair and green. With that unchanged setting before us, — if we were not dull indeed, — we saw as in a vision the shepherds who watched their flocks by night; we heard as in a dream the song of glory to God and peace to man which, floating from the Syrian skies, has been borne to the farthest ends of the earth. The divine idyl, related by St. Luke alone among the evangelists, seemed, for a moment, to take life and form. But it is unlikely that we received an impression so vivid, so intensely real, as that conveyed to the minds of these simple mountaineers by their poor little Christmas play, in which they themselves take part, and of which the theatre is their narrow village church.

The best of the surviving specimens of the Christmas pastoral is the one performed in the valleys of Cuorgnè, in Piedmont. Count Nigra, the Italian ambassador at Vienna, remembers having figured in it as a child, in the character of a herald angel, with wings of peacocks’ feathers: to him we owe the preservation of the text which he published a few years ago with some interesting notes. The necessary personages in this dramatic scene are eleven shepherds and one angel, but three angels are preferred when they can be had. Mary and Joseph do not appear. A side altar is converted into a manger, in which the image of the Babe lies. Midnight mass has advanced as far as the Credo when the performance opens with what is called an “angelic prologue.” In this homily, the congregation are requested to be very attentive; then, on this dark night, they will behold great portents. They will see the shepherds draw near to worship a new-born Babe, in whom, with melting hearts, they recognize their Redeemer. The prologue ends with the words: “Whoso desires happiness and justice, let him seek them in God, for they are not to be found among men; and now, may all things proceed with order, and may we meet one day in heaven.”

A knocking is heard at the chief entrance: the priest opens the door, and the eleven shepherds walk into the church. They wear long white woolen cloaks and broad-brimmed hats which they keep on their heads. Each carries a staff in one hand, and his offering in the other. Montano brings a lamb; Alceste, two pigeons; Volpino, honey; Silvio, fresh butter; Evandro, milk; Menalca, grapes (they are hung up in a dry place, so as to keep till December). Tigrane carries a pair of turtledoves; Titiro, apples; Polibeo, eggs; Mirteo, two chickens; Melibeo, cloth for swaddling clothes. The gifts remain with the priest, but, like the ancient sacrifice, they are in very truth offered to Deity. This custom has endeared the ceremonial to the poor, who are so fond of giving. They feel that their offerings actually supply the wants of their infant Lord, and feeling is much more real than thinking or knowing.

The crowd, which densely fills the little church, leaves a clear space for the shepherds in the middle of the building. Montano remarks that here they are with their gifts, but he has no idea why Melibeo, the oldest shepherd, has called them hither while the sun is still asleep. Questions and answers gradually disclose the fact that Melibeo supposed, from the appearance of the heavens, the time to be come for the birth of Him who should fulfill the promise of Abraham. While they are speaking, Melibeo suddenly declares that even now a light illumines the sky, the grass grows green, streams freed from ice run with a sweet murmur, flowers burst forth, hill and valley smile as in April. The younger shepherds, overpowered by fear, inquire if any one ever saw so light a night, or rather, so light a day. The congregation take this transformation on faith, but there soon appears a tangible angel who invites the shepherds to follow him to the manger. “Here,” he says, “is the august palace of the Word made man.”

In the next scene, the shepherds, by their homely remarks, elicit from the angel an exposition of Christian doctrine: —

Alceste. Look in how poor and rude a shed The King of kings has found a bed.

Angel. Here ’t was he uttered his first cry,
That you might learn humility.

Montano. Naked he meets the wintry night.

Angel. The road is hard to heaven’s height.

Titiro. He shakes with cold in every part.

Angel. Yet doth a flame ignite his heart.

Melibeo. He never murmurs nor complains.

Angel. That you may learn to bear your pains.

Volpino. Poor rags his body scarcely hide.

Angel. Thus to reprove the sins of pride.

Evandro. It seems as if the ox and cow
Were drawing night to warm him now.

Angel. The succor thoughtless beasts supply
Less feeling man shall oft deny.

Silvio. In what deep poverty he lies!

Angel. To teach you greatness to despise.

Mirteo. He seems beyond all mortal aid.

Angel. Who trusts in God is ne’er afraid.

Menalca. His woeful state to pity moves.

Angel. So heaven tries the soul it loves.

Polibeo. His childish tears are falling fast.

Angel. Blood will be there for tears at last.

Tigrane. How soft his limbs! How delicate!

Angel. One day the scourge will lacerate.
In this rich cradle you may see
Even he whose mighty hand,
And whose eterne command,
Formed heaven, created earth, and ordered hell to be.

At this point each shepherd deposits his gift. Apologies are offered for the poorness of the present, except in the case of the lamb, — an exception which shows a rare sense of the fitness of things possessed by the forgotten author whose work has lasted longer than his name. The dedication of the lamb is solemn: “Pure as thou art pure; guiltless as thou art guiltless; fated victim as thou art fated victim: Lord, may this my gift be acceptable in thy sight.” Of the other offerings, it is confessed that they are but common things, though they are the very best of their kind. (This is exactly what a real peasant says when he makes you a present.) The apples are of the sweetest; the cloth took years to weave; there never was such honey; the milk is milked from the pet ewe. But what are such things for a King? Each giver, after his little speech, adds himself to his gift: —

Ei t’ offre tutto assieme
Il dono e il donator.

Sometimes a kid, a wolfskin, a hare, or a few flowers are added to the gifts. The following rhyme accompanies the flower offering: —

These I gathered as I went,
Pretty flowers with a sweetest scent,
Which among the ice and snow
In the ice-bound meadow grow.
Let them, too, thy coming hail,
Let them, too, their homage yield;
Thou, the lily of the vale,
Thou, the flower of the field.

When all the gifts have been presented, Montano says that since their duty is done, they will go forth and spread the good news abroad. “Let everything be glad and rejoice. Let the Holy Name be graven on the bark of all the trees; let the air whisper it, and the crystal fountain reply. The birds, the wild beasts, and the flocks shall learn to pronounce it, and from every rock and mount and abyss Echo will repeat the name of the Child born this night.”

The priest finishes the mass, and the congregation join in a carol: —

I hear the people singing
Their songs of gladdest praise;
The very skies are ringing
With sweet, angelic lays.
Rejoice, my heart, and sing with them,
For Christ is born in Bethlehem.

Out of the church the mountain folk depart into the silence of the Alpine winter night. Each lights his torch, and takes his way slowly across the snow to his own dwelling. Above shine the innumerable stars.1

It is not difficult to understand how profoundly such a performance as the one described would touch souls full of reverence which Shakespeare called “the angel of the world,” and empty of ridicule which might be called the demon of the world. But it is plain that the effect upon us would be different. Sundry details, as for instance the peacock-feather wings of the celestial visitants, would be fatal to our seriousness. We should criticise the Arcadian style of the seventeenth century in which the dialogue is written, even while admitting that at times it shows real talent. It is worth noting, however, that, stripped of the ornaments by which pious playwrights sought to enhance it, the story of the shepherds has lately reasserted the power and charm of its lovely simplicity. In the last oratorio of Don Lorenzo Perosi, though we do not find the majesty of Handel’s “Unto us a Child is born,” we do find an extraordinary homogeneity between the words and the musical phrases wedded to them. The result is the evocation of a sort of mental picture: in the gloom of the cathedral at Como, where Il Natale del Redentore was produced, I saw again the vision I had seen looking backwards from Bethlehem.

  1. In the Italian plains no plays or mysteries are now performed, but in a corner of the cottage the manger is still arranged with moss and a waxen Babe, and, if possible, a few wooden or paper animals. Before this the children kneel. I have in my hand the Christmas letters of four little Italian peasant girls. Bettina, the eldest, pomises “di pregare ferverosamente il Divino Infante di conservare fra noi la nostra degna Signora.” Camila, the second, writes: “Non mancherò in questi solenni giorni di inalzare preci al Bambino celeste di ricompensare i suoi benefici.” Barbara, the third, inscribes “V. G. B.” (Viva Gesù Bambino) at the top of her letter. She writes: “Ecco le feste del Santo Natale che io desidevava tanto. Ora voglia scriverle una letterina per dimostrare il mio amore. Pregherò Gesù Bambino che la faccia vivere lunghi anni felice e contenta.” Evelina, the youngest (aged seven), writes in a large round hand: “Ecco le feste del Santo Natale; pregherò Gesù Bambino per Lei.”

    I would as soon attempt to translate Dante as to try and put these innocent outpourings into English, but I give them here because they are not without interest as documents in the history of the peasants’ religion, south of the Alps.