Germany has its Christkindlmarkt, France its Bûche de Noël and England its ghosts of Christmas past. The Italians have the Presepio.
From the Latin word praesaepe, ‘presepio’ loosely means ‘stall’, and refers to the scene of the infant Jesus, attended by his parents and worshippers, sleeping in a simple country manger. It is also called a crèche in French and merely the “nativity scene” in the United States.
Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first presepio in 1223 – a “living” one – set up in a grotto in the town of Greccio. The Neapolitans enhanced the idea in the 18th century and transformed the presepe from groupings of rustic miniatures to impressive spreads of intricately sculpted figurines.
Nearly every Italian church will have presepe and many are found outdoors in a square or other public area. Presepe are usually set up for about a month, starting around December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.
They vary in style and material according to their native geographical regions. Sicilians often use coral, mother-of-pearl, and alabaster from the sea to construct their presepe, while Romans replicate the landscape of Lazio, complete with umbrella pines, olive trees, and aqueducts.
Saint Peter’s in Rome has most probably the most monumental presepio. It is mounted in the Basilica’s piazza and it is over this landscape that the pope gives his annual midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
Naples, Verona, Trento and Milan are other cities known for their elaborate nativity scenes. I personally like to find the small intimate presepe tucked away in the modest village church. I will never forget the story one of our clients told us about their Christmas experience in Italy in 2001. Outside the walls of the medieval town of Bevagna in Umbria were all kinds of different presepe created by the village children. They were all crafted in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks and expressed sorrow and hope. It was the most memorable part of their visit to Italy.
Some notable places to buy entire presepe or the individual figures is at the market on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples or at one of the Christmas markets in the Alto Adige region north of Verona.