Perhaps not many know that the first nativity scene in history was staged by Francis of Assisi, around 1223. As described in Francis’ biography by St. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay, an ox and an ass in a cave in the village of Grecio in the central region of Lazio. He then invited villagers to come look at the scene as he preached about Jesus.
From there, nativity scenes spread throughout Europe in the next two centuries. Gradually, the scenes expanded to include many life actors and dioramas, and at times an entire village.
The living scene tradition is still strong in Italy. If you are a nativity buff, these are some of the most interesting presepi viventi around the country.
Presepe vivente, Greccio (Rieti)
The birthplace of presepe. St. Francis would retire here in prayer and meditation. One day, recalling a visit he had made years before to Bethlehem, he resolved to create the manger he had seen there. Today, in an evocative setting, residents recreate the story of how the nativity scene tradition began, complete with a music and lights show.
Presepe vivente, Custonaci (Trapani)
Near Trapani, on Sicily’s western coast, Custonaci displays its living nativity scene inside a cave. The landslide that buried the city in 1800 is used as a backdrop for the beautiful nativity scene. It is one of the most important events of Sicilian Christmas.
Presepe vivente in the Sassi di Matera
The stones of the city of Matera are the perfect setting to bring to life the magic of Bethlehem. You will meet craftsmen, musicians and shepherds who will bring to life a beautiful representation of the Nativity in a unique setting. This year’s theme is ‘family’.
Presepe vivente di San Biagio (Mantova)
This small town near Mantova displays great enthusiasm for this event, with residents and real families portraying the various characters of the nativity scene. Each night there are at least 150 figures.
Presepe vivente di Dogliani (Cuneo)
In the heart of the Langhe, the nativity scene is set up right in the center of the borgo of Dogliani. Houses and shops are transformed into artisans' workshops with more than 350 characters to liven them up.