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AN INTRICATE PRESEPE located on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples.

The Presepio Through the Ages

In Italy, every family has a presepio and starting December 8th, Italian families set up their presepio inside their homes, often taking great pride in creating very elaborate scenes. However, Baby Jesus is never placed in the crib until Christmas Eve and the presepio usually stays up for a month until after the Feast of the Epiphany.

According to St. Luke, “Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger…”A three dimensional representation of this first Christmas is the central focus in Italian homes around the world. From the Latin praesepire (to fence or enclose) comes the modern day Italian word for the Nativity Scene, Presepio.

The idea of the presepio is believed to date back to the second century and images were actually first presented as frescos in the St. Sebastian Catacombs. The frescos show a sort of manger with a donkey and ox, but Mary and Joseph are not seen. Even up to the fifth century, there was little evidence that showed the existence of the presepio as we know it today.

It was St. Francis of Assisi who is credited with popularizing the presepio, using live animals and real people for his Nativity scenes. In 1223, within a cave in the small town of Greccio, near Assisi, St. Francis took a manger and filled it with hay; he tied a donkey and ox near it and with a crowd of people from all over the neighboring countryside and celebrated a Mass in front of the crib. There were no figurines or people representing Joseph, Mary or the Christ Child. The intent of Saint Francis was to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ, rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving. It is a lesson that we can still learn from today.

Following the message of St. Francis, the presepio began to appear in Italy during the 14th century. Figures in marble, wood or terracotta were permanently on display all the year round. Among these are one carved in wood in 1330 at the Convent of Santa Chiara in Naples and a terracotta one found in the Franciscan church at Busseto near Parma.

Over time, the presepio became more elaborate and increasingly different from its original Franciscan simplicity. By the 17th century, Nativity scenes began to mirror the culture that produced them, reflecting both aspects of daily life, but also unusual and exotic elements were coupled with spectacular scenery. The Presepio was transformed from a custom of the church and the wealthy to a popular tradition among many families in Italy. Today, you will find that some displays have taken years to create and have running water, fountains, streams and electric lighting. One that comes to mind is in the town of Caltagirone, Sicily. The Capuchins have a year round Presepio that traces Christ’s life from birth to the Resurrection.

Each region has variations and preferences with regard to the Presepio and figurines are made in many parts of Italy. However, some of the best come from Naples and Sicily. Naples lays claim as the best city to visit for viewing the Presepio, where hundreds of Nativity scenes are erected throughout the city. The street Via San Gregorio Armeno in central Naples is filled with displays and stalls selling Nativity scenes all year.

In Sicily, the Presepio developed under the influence of the Neapolitan model, but differ and have a more pronounced religious character. The oldest and most famous Presepio is found in the Church of St. Bartholomew near Ragusa, with painted wooden statues about 20 inches in height.

In Lecce, located in the province Puglia, papier-mâché or cartapesta figurines have always been a typical element of popular customs and traditions. The figures are made from rags that have been reduced to pulp, which are then mixed with flour and boiled in water. To ensure that the figures will last for generations, the water contains a chemical that prevents paper worms. The statues are modeled exclusively by hand and each figure is painstakingly painted.

In the Trentino-Alto Adige region, figurines are generally carved in wood. At Neustift monastery near Bressanone a Presepio with 20-inch statues dates to 1621. Slightly damaged during bombing in World War II, it was restored and can still be admired today. Whatever its size, style or design, the presepio brings joy to us all and reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas.