The Presepe is the traditional Italian Nativity Scene - but there's more to it than you might expect!
Christmas in Italy, like many other aspects of Italian culture, is rich with tradition. One of the most loved traditions for Italian families is the Presepe. A Presepe, or "Presepio" as it is sometimes called (both are correct), is a Nativity scene, but there's more to it than you might expect!
The Presepe Family Tradition:
On December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Italian Families start to build their Presepe. All the familiar characters are present - Mary, Joseph, the wise men and the shepherds - but that's just the beginning! Outside is the entire village of Bethlehem, after all. Italians take pride in creating beautiful and detailed scenes with a host of minor characters populating the village. The most important detail is of course the crib in the manger, which remains empty until Baby Jesus makes his entrance and is finally placed in the crib on Christmas Eve, completing the scene. Presepi traditionally stay out on display in Italian homes until after January 6th, the Epiphany.
History of the Presepe:
The tradition of Nativity Scenes dates all the way back to the 13th century. St Francis of Assisi is credited with popularizing the Presepe when, In the year 1223, St Francis built a manger in a cave in Greccio using real animals and people and celebrated Christmas Eve mass. There were claims of miracles and healings, and the tradition of reenacting the nativity spread.
Via San Gregorio in Naples:
Naples is known for creating some of the most elaborate and artful Presepi in Italy. Via San Gregorio is a street that has become famous for the craftsman that hand-carve and paint figurines from wood and terracotta. They construct Presepi of all sizes, some costing hundreds of euros. Throughout September and October taking a stroll down Via San Gregorio is a must to see the artisans preparing the figurines. During Christmas Via San Gregorio is crowded with tourists and locals alike who have come to admire the craftsmanship, and maybe even take home an original Presepe Napolitano.
In Naples there is also the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, home to the largest nativity scene in the world. The "Presepe Cucinello," pictured above, has 160 characters, 80 animals, 28 angels, and over 400 miniature objects!
Trust us when we say that you haven't seen a Nativity Scene until you've seen an Italian Presepe. Take our advice: If an Italian family welcomes you into their home during Christmastime, bring along a Panettone, and be ready to compliment their Presepe!