Matera, located in Basilicata near the border of Puglia, is one of the most unusual towns in all of Italy in this respect... because of its Sassi (literally, rocks), the cave homes dug into the mountain that the city sits upon. People have been living in caves for 50,000 years here. The Sassi have been restored into posh hotels and B&Bs and apartments with Matera itself declared the Capitol of Europe for 2019.
In winter, the surrounding rocky landscape and the Sassi homes are a wonderland, especially with a dusting of snow...
In December and January, visitors to Matera can walk through the Sassi, along the edge of the gorge and enjoy the Living Presepio displays. Much like small presepio displays, besides the Nativity scene itself (with Joseph, Mary and Jesus), there are costumed Materese portraying shopkeepers, musicians, beggars and gypsies from the time of Jesus.
The presepio, derived from the Latin word presepium, meaning manger, has been the defacto symbol of Christmas for Italian families for dozens of generations, and in the South, perhaps as long as a thousand years. Of course, most Italians also have a modern Christmas tree, but the presepio in its simplest form is a tradition of devotion representing the birth of the baby Jesus. These nativity scenes typically consist of a structure to represent the simple barn where Joseph and Mary were forced to give birth to the Son of God. An ox, donkey, angels and perhaps the three Wise Men are typically represented.
But the presepio is often much, much more, showing village scenes from every day life. Its components are mostly handmade from a variety of materials: wood, ceramic, cartapesta (Papier-mâché), terracotta and fabrics. Some scenes include small waterfalls or fountains, houses, buildings, mountains, trees, grottoes, livestock and vendors of all sorts. The details can be absolutely astounding.
There are some characters and elements that many deem essential to the tradition:
Benino or Benito: In the Holy Scriptures this character represents the “sleeping people to whom the angels announce the coming of the Christ”. Originally represented by a sleeping shepherd, but can be any sleeping man.
Benino, the shepherd often sleeps among 12 sheep, to stand for the 12 apostles or the twelve months of the year.
Another figure is the Shepherd of Wonder, shown on his knees, with open arms in front of the Nativity. He is a symbol of admiration and childish amazement, free of sin, in the face of the miracle of birth and regeneration.
The wine cellar and Cicci Bacco: the wine represents the blood of Christ, given to the people for their salvation, while Cicci Bacco is a representation of pagan divinities.
The fisherman: Fish is the first symbol of the christians persecuted during the Roman empire. The character is a “fisherman of souls”.
The Hunter, Both the fisherman and Hunter represent the two activities of human survival and the opposing Death and Life.
The two comrades: Uncle Vincenzo and Uncle Pasquale represent Fat Tuesday and the Death, the two moments that open and close the period of commemoration of the death of Jesus before Easter time.
The Three Wise Men: originally represented on the back of three different animals, the horse, the dromedary and the elephant, they symbolize Asia, Africa, and Europe, that find Baby Jesus after a long journey and honor him.
Three female figures: 1) the Young Gypsy Woman with tattered clothes is able to predict the future. She is a sign of misfortune and pain yet to befall Jesus. 2) Stefania is a young virgin who was blocked by angels forbidding unmarried women to visit Our Lady. Stefania swaddled a stone pretending it was her baby and after Jesus' birth, the stone sneezed and became a child--Saint Stephen, whose birthday is celebrated on December 26th. 3) La Lavandaia represents the midwives who discovered after washing the Child, spread out the clothes of childbirth, white because of virginal birth.
In the Neapolitan presepio are found the Card Players "duie cumpare, zi' Vicienzo and zi 'Pascale", "The two cronies" are also nicknamed "the San Giovanni", with reference to the two solstices of December 24 and June 24.
The Monk is often set in a desecrating manner, representing the irony between the sacred and the profane.
The Harlot is a symbol of the carnal, as opposed to the purity of the Virgin. She is placed near the tavern, opposite to the Nativity.
The months of the year are represented as follows: Januarybutcher or grocer; Februaryseller of ricotta and cheese; Marchpoultry man and bird seller; Aprilegg seller; Mayrepresented by a married couple carrying a basket of cherries and fruit; Junebaker or miller; Julytomato seller; Augustseller of watermelons; Septemberseller of figs; Octobervintner or hunter; Novemberchestnut seller; Decemberfishmonger or fisherman