During Christmastime in Italy, you are bound to come across presepi in homes and piazzas all over the country. Presepe, which translates directly to “crib,” is a traditional nativity scene depicting the manger where Jesus was born.
While you might not find a Christmas tree in every Italian home, there is a good chance you will see a nativity scene, some of which have been passed down through generations. The presepi can look very different depending on what region of Italy you find yourself in. The materials used to create the scene will depend on the typical products found in that particular Italian city. For example, a Sicilian presepe might incorporate materials like orange branches or coral, while Neapolitan presepe will generally have pastors constructed of terracotta.
While small models are common, many cities also have a presepe vivente, or a living nativity scene. It is thought that St. Francis hosted the first living nativity scene in 1223, sparking a tradition that continues in Italy to this day. Beginning on Christmas day, and running until January 6th, towns throughout Italy hold pageants to reenact the night of Jesus’ birth. Actors portray Mary, Joseph, the three Magi and other biblical figures from the gospel. Some presepe vivente can include over 100 participants!
But one figure you won’t see in the presepe, living or modeled, before December 24th, is the baby Jesus. The tiny model finds his way into the manger scene on Christmas Eve. In presepe vivente, a young baby from the town has the special honor of representing Gesú Bambino.
The most famous presepi presentations are found in Milan, Rome and Naples, but the great variation of nativity scenes throughout the country are one more example of the beautiful traditions that you can enjoy wherever you celebrate Christmas in Italy.