Italy's living nativity

Il Natale in Italia è una festa speciale: una celebrazione di speranza e della nascita di Gesù. Il simbolo natalizio più tipico è il presepio o la natività che, con una tradizione pluricentenaria, può essere composto di statue o addirittura vivente.

The Christmas holiday season in Italy is a very special time of the year. Over the years I have been very fortunate to be there and experience firsthand the various celebrations, traditions and festivities that take place throughout Italia! I miss the holiday season in Italy, which is as much of a celebration of hope as it is Jesus' birthday.

The ultimate symbol of Italy's bright-eyed optimism at this time of the year is the presepio, or nativity scene. While we place a great deal of emphasis on Christmas trees, Santa Claus and gifts, nothing compares to the masterpiece crèches for which Italians are famous.

Building the nativity scene is an enduring tradition and one that has been handed down from Italian generation to Italian generation. The nativity scene represents the scene of the birth of Jesus Christ and is one of the main traditional Christmas decorations in Italy and you can find one in almost every church and in many homes. It is usually prepared on December 8, the day in which we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and is displayed for nearly one month.

This tradition of placing nativity sculptures in church dates back to the Middle Ages, even though before this period there were images and representations of the birth of Christ. It was Saint Francis of Assisi who popularized the image of the crib and thereby started the tradition of the nativity scene. Since then, the representation of the nativity has spread in virtually all parts of Italy in many ways.

In the fifteenth century, the idea of placing large statues of saints in churches began the tradition of situating nativities in sacred places. One of the oldest is the monumental presepe in the Basilica of Santo Stefano in Bologna, which is prepared each year during the Christmas season.

In the seventeenth century, nativity scenes began to appear in the house of the noble families and were displayed as knick-knacks or as miniature chapels. The materials used to create a nativity scene varied according to the location: marble, terracotta, and wood were used, as well as coral, ivory, bone, mother- of- pearl, alabaster, and shells.

In Naples during the eighteenth century, the Bourbon king Charles III had a real passion for this art form and under his rule the city became the capital of the presepe. Local competition began among families over who had the most beautiful crèches. The noble families devoted rooms of their mansions to display magnificent nativity scenes with statues covered in precious clothes and real sparkling jewels. It was possible to recognize characters of the local nobility as well as the middle and lower classes, all engaged in their daily typical activities: drinking in the local taverns, fishing, selling products along the roads and dancing. These nativities went beyond the original intent. Geographical elements were also included, such as Mount Vesuvius or the Campania landscape in the background.

In the same century in Bologna, the Santa Lucia Fair, an annual market of nativity statues created by craftsmen, was established. This fair still continues today after more than two centuries.

There is also a strong tradition of the nativity in Rome. Here, the most important families created magnificent crèches to be displayed with pride during sumptuous Christmas dinners. The Roman nativity scene, like the Neopolitan, reproduced the typical local country landscape with pine trees and ancient aqueducts in the background. Over time, nativity scenes appeared in common people's homes and it became a deeply respected tradition in Italy.

The best nativity scenes can be seen in Naples where hundreds of crèches are erected throughout the city. Some of them are very elaborate and are mostly handmade. Some statues are true antiques and can even cost thousands of dollars. The best nativity scenes can be found on the street of San Gregorio Armeno in central Naples, which is filled with many shops displaying stands full of nativity scenes.

In the Vatican, there is a huge presepe in St. Peter's Square for Christmas. In Rome you will find the most elaborate and largest nativity scenes in the churches in the Piazza del Popolo, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Piazza Euclide and Santa Maria d' Aracoel. The Church of Saints Cosimo and Damiano, by the main entrance to the Roman Forum, has a large, antique nativity scene from Naples on display all year long.

Another important tradition in Italy is the living nativity scene called presepi viventi. Costumed people act out events of the nativity, sometimes over several days, usually on Christmas Day and the day after, as well as January 6 (the Epiphany), which is also the twelfth day of Christmas when the Three Wise Men brought their gifts to Jesus.

There are also many living nativities all over Italy. The one held in Chia in northern Lazio has more than 500 participants. In the Tuscan town of Barga, on the evening of December 23, more than 100 costumed people form a procession behind Mary and Joseph, walking through the town asking costumed tradesmen for lodging. The procession ends at the main square, where a star guides the arrival of the Wise Men.

In Custonaci, a small town near Trapani in Sicily, the nativity scene is re-enacted inside a cave. During the festivities the entire town is set up to resemble an ancient village with craftspeople and small shops.

In Rivisondoli in the region of Abruzzo, there is a living nativity on December 24 and 25 and the re-enactment of the arrival of the Three Kings on January 5 with hundreds of costumed participants.

As we begin to prepare to celebrate this special time of the year with our families, let us not forget the true meaning and spirit of Christmas. Let us continue to emphasize, hold and cherish the long history and traditions of the nativity and the importance of the birth of Jesus.

To all of my friends and clients, Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!

Peter D'Attoma is the president of DaVinci Custom Travel & Tours. He has over 25 years of planning and designing independent, custom and escorted tours of Italy for individuals, groups and incentives. For more information call 330-633-2292 or visit

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