Every country has certain rituals and traditions that give meaning to the 1950’s classic holiday song “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. For most it probably has to do with putting up and decorating the Christmas tree. In Italy setting up il presepe is what creates that Christmas feeling. Il presepe (presepio) is the Italian Christmas crèche or nativity scene that depicts the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Although many Christians outside of Italy include a manger with Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels awaiting the birth of Jesus few achieve the intricate detail of il presepe. The least of Italian presepe scenes are elaborate constructions that create a tablescape of buildings and figures while others achieve the intricacy of a museum diorama complete with running streams and flickering fires.
Across the country in churches, town squares and shop windows there are incredible scenes of the story Bethlehem from miniature to life-size. Some were commissioned to be made by well-known sculptors* and constructed with the same attention as the building of a real town or village. Often figures would appear that resembled the people in the town, a tableaux of the community in a scene from the time of Christ’s birth. Natural materials and greenery from the surrounding countryside were collected and clothes were especially made for each figure as part of a vignette to create a realistic view of that moment in time.
The idea of creating a scene in which the people could feel part of the miracle of Christmas was first imagined in the village of Greccio in 1223 when Francis of Assisi prepared a special celebration on Christmas Eve. In a natural cave near the town he prepared a straw-filled manger to create a presepe vivente“, a real-life nativity scene with live animals and towns people dressed as Mary and Joseph. The scene was described as follows
“the brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; 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.”
*the most ancient known presepe was sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 13th century and can be seen in the museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome