Centuries ago, in 1223, San Francesco (Saint Francis), the charismatic friar of Umbria, wanted to bring to life the story of il natale di bambino Gesù (the birth of Baby Jesus). In the little town of Greccio, he placed a manger in some straw and added a living Madonna, San Giuseppe (St. Joseph), shepherds (pastori) and actual cattle (bue), sheep (pecore) and donkeys (asinelli), the animals that, as the story goes, once warmed the infant with their breath.
Throughout Italy every church constructs a presepio (or presepe), including presepi viventi (living crèches) with real people and animals, ranging from simple to stunning. Some include hills, trees, lakes, rivers, angels suspended by wires, the Christmas star (stella cometa) and reproductions of an entire village or countryside with the cave (grotta) of Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The culla di paglia (cradle of straw) remains empty until the night of Natale.
Naples is most famous for its presepi, with hundreds of nativity scenes, including many with handmade or antique figures, set up around the city. Throughout the year artisans along San Gregorio Armeno create elaborate statuine (clay figures) of the traditional Nativity figures as well as of contemporary personalities.
In the past many families would go to the woods (bosco) to gather moss and greens to serve as backdrop. for their presepio. Today it’s possible to buy plastic figurines, fake grass and entire miniature villages. However, the tradition of putting together a unique presepio remains strong.
One friend recalls the annual ritual of unpacking the box in which all the statuini were stored. Her father would take out each pastore, introduce him by name and tell a little story about his life and what he was doing on that magical night so many years ago. Each of the children would do the same with the animals. Because the magi or wise men didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until January 6, the date of the Epiphany, his family would place the three kings at a distance from the presepio and move them, along with the star they followed, ever closer every day.
Christmas trees (alberi di Natale) also appear in many homes. Italians in the northern part of the country began decorating Christmas trees after World War II, and this tradition has become widespread. In some parts of Italy, families build a tree of light, a pyramid-shaped wooden frame several feet high with tiers of shelves decorated with colored banners and gilt pine cones. Often a presepio occupies the bottom shelf, with gifts of fruit, candy and presents above, small candles fastened to the slanted sides and a star or small doll at the top.
Give the gift of Italy this Christmas!
For more information and ordering links, click on the titles: LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.