Talking Il Presepe - The Traditional Italian Nativity Scene

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 05:38
nativity scene

If you’ve ever been to Italy over Christmas, you’ll have no doubt seen il presepe. This is the traditional Italian nativity scene and can be seen in churches all over Italy, as well as in many shops and family homes.

Il presepe, also known as il presepio, is put up on 8th December. In Italy, this a religious holiday that celebrates the immaculate conception, known as la festa dell’immacolata. Typically, baby Jesus is placed in the nativity scene on 24th December, and the three wise men are added on 6th January. In Italian this day is called epifania (epiphany).

Shops and markets sell all the items needed to make your own presepe, such as:

La stalla – stable
Le statuine – figurines
Maria – Mary
Giuseppe – Joseph
I tre re magi – The three wise men
Gesù bambino – baby Jesus
I pastori – shepherds
L’angelo - angel
Il bue – ox
L’asinello – little donkey
La casa – house
L’edificio – building
La mangiatoia - manger

Some presepi are mechanical with moving parts, such as a moon that rises and an angel that flies across the sky. Others have running water and lights and a variety of landscapes like:

La cascata – waterfall
Il fiume – river
Il laghetto – pond
Il pozzo – well
Il mulino - windmill
Il cespuglio – bush / hedge
L’albero - tree
La palma – palm tree
Il cielo con le stelle – sky with stars in it

The nativity scene dates back to Saint Francis of Assisi who devoted his life to poverty and simplicity.

In 1223, he built a nativity scene in a cave in the town of Greccio in Lazio and celebrated Christmas Eve mass there.
Wherever you are in Italy this Christmas, it’s lovely to go and see all the different types of presepi around. In some villages, you can even see il presepe vivente (the living nativity scene) with real animals and local people playing the parts. Some take place in impressive backdrops such as caves, hill-top villages and town squares and have actors, craftsmen and musicians taking part.