These nativities are also known as a manger scene, or crib, or in Italian presepio or presepe... literally translating as crib. The tradition started in Italy in the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi created a living Nativity in the town of Greccio for the Christmas midnight Mass in the year 1223. Inside a cave, he prepared a manger with animals and celebrated Mass. There were even claims of miraculous healings following the building of this crèche.
From these early roots, the tradition began to spread throughout all of Italy. Presepi were mostly built in churches during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Not wanting to be left out, the wealthy commissioned presepe in their own homes. Eventually poorer people built presepe by using whatever materials they had. Typically, the presepe were modeled after the local villages where they lived.
Nowadays, and especially in Naples, the presepe go much further than a little barn, animals and the three wise men. They often become entire villages, temples, neighborhoods, grottoes or hillsides complete with costumed people milling about in various professions hawking their wares... butchers, fruit vendors, carpenters, bakers, monks, washerwomen, bagpipers and of course, a few angels. The figures themselves are often magnificent works of art with typically one purchased each year to add to a family's display. And while the structures that house these cartapesta (see Cartapesta: The High Art of Papier Mache in Puglia) and terracotta figures can also be elaborate, the real appeal is in the small details... cheeses, bunches of grapes, hand tools, butcher's meats, fruit, musical instruments, sausages and more add to the realism of the presepe scenes.
Back in the Eighties, I saw an amazing presepe in the basement chapel of St. Joseph's Church of Greenwich Village on Avenue of the Americas in New York. It was huge--perhaps 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep--and represented an entire hillside village in Southern Italy. In my memory it was supposed to be in Sicily, but I could be mistaken--perhaps it was in the Naples area. The buildings looked like the light colored stone houses I saw all over the South when we visited Italy. There were many types of figures and animals placed around the display and I recall it was displayed in the darkened chapel as an illuminated nighttime scene. Sadly, I've tried to find photos of this presepe but they've renovated the church and don't seem to have the display any longer. If I do find any photos, I'll post them here for sure...
We still display a small barn type crèche in our home every Christmas and Lucas gets to place the baby Jesus in the crib on Christmas Eve....
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