Oh, Christmas tree!
Almost all Italians now have a Christmas tree. It’s said that Queen Margherita of Savoy —she of the pizza—first set one up in the Quirinal Palace in Rome in the late 1800s. She took inspiration from the English tradition popularized by Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert in the 1840s, and that it quickly caught on. It is therefore, one of the few modern Christmas traditions that did not arrive in Italy from the USA after the Second World War.
Presepio or presepe?
There is, however, another, much older tradition, that Italians still adhere to at Christmas time. That is the setting up of the traditional presepio, or nativity scene. Before we go on, I must add that there are two Italian words competing for your attention here: presepio and presepe, both in common usage. The Accademia della Crusca, the authority on correct Italian usage, says that you can use either. I like to use presepio, because it’s closest to the phrase from which it derives. In the Latin version of Saint Luke’s Gospel it says that after he was born Mary laid the baby Jesus ‘in praesepio‘: in a manger.
1233 and all that
The tradition of nativity scenes in Italy can be traced all the way back to 1233. In that year Saint Francis of Assisi—Italy’s much-loved patron saint—set up the first one in Greccio, in modern day Lazio. He had seen a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem during his trip to the Holy Land and wanted to recreate the same thing in Italy. This first presepio was a type of tableau vivant with real people representing the characters. Faithful to his image of the Saint who talked to animals (and to the Gospel story), Francis populated the stable with an ox, an ass, and lots of lambs and sheep. This tradition of the presepe vivente (living nativity) is still found particularly in northern-central Italy, Saint Francis’s old stamping ground.
Join in the fun
This year Greccio, as the home of the presepio, is having an online competition. Take a photo of your presepio, send it in, and you could have it displayed for a year in the Greccio Nativity Museum. Full details here. The page also has a nice gallery of presepi.
Over the years, the presepi became made of wood or plaster and were set up in churches everywhere at Christmas time. Then they became miniaturized and were set up in people’s houses. Today you can buy stables and figures everywhere at Christmas, from posh shops to DIY stores, costing a few euros to a few hundred.
The most famous presepi in Italy are the Neapolitan ones. These tend to have hand made figures dressed in real fabric. There is a whole street in Naples, via San Gregorio Armeno, filled with shops just selling these. As well as the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Ox and Ass, and an Angel, there are several other traditional characters which form a strange mix of sacred and profane.
A cast of thousands
The characters include: Benino, a sleeping shepherd. Legend says, if you wake him up, the presepio will disappear; Il vinaio, a wine merchant representing the wine which is used in church during the eucharist, accompanied by Cicci Bacco (Bacchus) the ancient Roman god of wine; il pescatore, a fisherman, alluding to the fact that the ancient Greek word for fish is also an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God and Saviour; la meretrice, a ‘lady of the night’, to contrast and therefore remind us of the purity of the Virgin Mary; i venditori, twelve people selling things from eggs to watermelons, representing the twelve months of the year. The list goes on.
Neapolitans also add figures of contemporary interest to the presepio, such as politicians, sportsmen, actors, singers, and so on. So if you fancy Silvio Berlusconi, Lady Gaga, Diego Maradona, or Donald Trump in your presepio get along to Naples.
Do you have a presepio at home? I’d love to hear about it.