December 6, 2012, Campania, Italia, Napoli, News, Notes, Puglia

Italian Christmas celebrations

Presepe nativity scenes in Italian Christmas celebrations

Coming from a country where the key persona around Christmas is a humanoid nisse who features in animated department store windows, I’ve always found it hard to relate to the Italian ‘presepe’ tradition. Until a neighbour – who’s a mason by trade – showed me his very own, personal interpretation of a Puglian nativity scene.

Italian Christmas celebrations

According to Wikipedia, the first nativity scene was created in the 13th century by Saint Francis of Assisi who wanted to call attention to the birth of Jesus by showing a characteristic scene from the barn in Bethlehem. St. Francis’ nativity scene was alive with humans and animals in the Biblical roles, but eventually, statues replaced living participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with wood or clay figurines placed in landscape settings. The figurines became particularly popular in Naples, where families started competing with each other to make the most lifelike cast that gradually expanded from Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus to all kinds of Biblical and mundane characters including politicians, actors and celebrities. It is not unusual to see Silvio Berlusconi or Barack Obama among the Three Wise Men on display by Italian homes and churches from December 8, which is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception.

From this point of view I shouldn’t have been surprised to see my neighbour’s presepe which was an exact replica of a nearby trullo shed. For hours and days, he had collected tiny stones and built them up in scale with the original. To give the finished presepe a more festive touch than the natural grey a few splashes of colour had been added, but apart from that it was a perfect – if rather heavy – miniature. It took two strong men to lift the presepe trullo up on a chair, so we could admire the built-in electric light and the figurines of which only the archangel was missing. I’m sure the archangel  is in place now though, along with all the other characters inhabiting Italian nativity scenes throughout the country.

Other posts on tradition and religion

Mysterious Easter traditions in Taranto

Easter in Italy

Which is witch?

Italian Halloween cookies

Easter in Francavilla Fontana 2

Easter procession in Francavilla Fontana

Easter passion in Oria

Procession of living statues

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December 6, 2012 5:46 pm

Italian Christmas celebrations « goodthingsfromitaly

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December 8, 2012 11:54 am

Calogero Mira

And thanks for these photos and video about Italian cribs! Maybe I have a post about a crib from my town in my travel blog or in one of my Twitter profiles. Surely in my travel blog in Italian.

December 10 2012 16:26 pm


That would be such a good idea. I'll look forward to that:)

December 8, 2012 10:35 pm


Great insight into Italian culture at Christmas. I had no idea that presepes were such a big deal in Italy.

December 10 2012 16:21 pm


No, I wonder what it's like in Germany...

December 10, 2012 10:47 am


Nativity scenes is what I remember most from wandering through Italian Christmas markets a few years ago. That, and witches.

December 10 2012 16:20 pm


Yes, they do make an impression. Especially when you come from a country with no tradition for presepes.

December 11, 2012 8:39 am

Mary {The World Is A Book}

Miniature nativity scenes were big in our households and I have a couple at home but these presepes take it into a whole new level. Wow! I’d love to see those in person or any Italian nativity scene.

December 11 2012 08:55 am


Yes, they are quite impressive. Not to mention the live ones with virgins and donkeys.

December 13, 2012 2:03 am

Stephanie – The Travel Chica

Always interesting to learn the history and traditions of holidays in other parts of the world.

December 13 2012 09:52 am


Yes, the variations are amazing.

December 18, 2012 2:11 pm

A collection of mostly wild flowers in Italy

[…] Italian Christmas celebrations […]

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