Traditionally, the main focus of Christmas decorations in Italy is the Nativity scene, presepe or presepio in Italian. Every church has a presepe and they can be found in squares, shops, and other public areas. Displays often go beyond the manger scene and may even include a representation of the entire village.
Presepi are usually set up starting December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, through January 6, Epiphany, but some are unveiled on Christmas Eve.
Most Italians set up a Christmas crib in their house and figurines for nativity scenes are made in many parts of Italy, with some of the best coming from Naples and Sicily. Although the presepe is usually set up before Christmas, baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve.
Origins of Italian Nativity Scenes
The Nativity scene is said to have originated with Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223 when he constructed a nativity scene in a cave in the town of Greccio and held Christmas Eve mass and a nativity pageant there. Greccio reenacts this event each year.
Carving figurines for nativity scenes started in the late 13th century when Arnolfo di Cambio was commissioned to carve marble nativity figures for the first Rome Jubilee held in 1300. Said to be the oldest permanent Christmas crib, it can be seen in the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore Church and is one of the top things to see in Rome during Christmas season.
Best places to see Christmas Cribs, or Presepi, in Italy
Naples is the best city to visit for their presepi. Hundreds of nativity scenes are erected throughout the city. Some creches are very elaborate and may be handmade or use antique figures. Starting December 8, the Church of Gesu' Nuovo, in Piazza del Gesu', displays nativity scene art work from the Neapolitan Nativity Scenes Association.
The street Via San Gregorio Armeno in central Naples is filled with displays and stalls selling Nativity scenes all year.
In Vatican City a huge presepe is constructed in Saint Peter's Square for Christmas that is usually unveiled on Christmas Eve. A Christmas Eve mass is held in Saint Peter's square, usually at 10 pm.
In Rome some of the biggest and most elaborate presepi are found in Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Euclide, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill. A life-size nativity scene is set up in Piazza Navona where a Christmas market is also held. The Church of Saints Cosma e Damiano, by the main entrance to the Roman Forum, has a large nativity scene from Naples on display all year.
Bethlehem in the Grotto - an elaborate life-size nativity scene is created each year and transported to the Grotte di Stiffe, a beautiful cave in the Abruzzo region, about 20 miles from L'Aquila. The scene is illuminated and can be visited during December.
Verona has an international display of nativities in the huge Roman Arena through January.
Trento in northern Italy's Alto-Adige region has a large nativity scene in Piazza Duomo.
Jesolo, 30 km from Venice, has a sand sculpture nativity made by top international sand sculpture artists.
It takes place daily in Piazza Marconi through mid-January. Donations are used to fund charitable projects.
Manarola in Cinque Terre has a unique ecological nativity powered by solar energy.
Celleno, a tiny town in the northern Lazio region about 30 km from Viterbo, has a magnificent presepe that is set up for viewing all year. Celleno is also famous for its cherries.
Many churches in Milan have elaborate nativity scenes set up around Christmas time.
Presepio Museums in Italy
Il Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples has an elaborate collection of nativity scenes from the 1800s.
Il Museo Tipologico Nazionale del Presepio, under the church of Saints Quirico e Giulitta in Rome, has over 3000 figurines from all over the world made out of almost anything you can imagine.
The museum has very limited hours and is closed in summer but they are open each afternoon December 24-January 6. In October they have a course where you can learn to make presepe yourself. Phone 06 679 6146 for information.
Il Museo Tipologico del Presepio in Macerata in the Marche region has more than 4000 nativity pieces and a 17th-century presepe from Naples.
Presepi Viventi, Italian Living Nativity Scenes
Living nativity pageants, presepi viventi, are found in many parts of Italy with costumed people acting out the parts of the nativity. Often living nativity scenes are presented for several days, usually Christmas Day and December 26, and sometimes again the following weekend around the time of Epiphany, January 6, the 12th day of Christmas when the three Wise Men gave Baby Jesus their gifts.
Top places to see living nativity scenes, presepi viventi, in Italy
Greccio, Umbria, was the site of Saint Francis' first live nativity (a simple silent tableau of the Holy Family with an ox and donkey). Greccio still holds one of Umbria's top Christmas events, an elaborate, live nativity with hundreds of participants.
Frasassi Gorge has one of the largest and most suggestive nativity pageants in Italy. Held on a cliff near the Frasassi Caves, the Genga Nativity Scene includes a procession up the hill to a temple and scenes from everyday life during the time of Jesus' birth. More than 300 actors take part and proceeds are given to charity. Usually held on December 26 and 30.
The beautiful medieval hill town of Barga, in northern Tuscany, has a living nativity and Christmas pageant on December 23.
Custonaci, a small town near Trapani in Sicily, has a beautiful nativity scene re-enacted inside a cave. A tiny town was buried in the cave by a landslide in the 1800's. The cave has been excavated and now serves as a setting for the interesting live nativity events December 25-26 and early January. More than just a nativity, the village is set up to resemble an ancient village with craftspeople and small shops.
The evocative town of Equi Terme, in the Lunigiana region of northern Tuscany, has a reenactment of the nativity that takes place throughout the village in a beautiful hillside setting.
Milan has an Epiphany Parade of the Three Kings from the Duomo to the church of Sant'Eustorgio, January 6.
Rivisondoli, in the Abruzzo region, has a reenactment of the arrival of the 3 kings on January 5 with hundreds of costumed participants. Rivisondoli also presents a living nativity December 24 and 25. Also in the Abruzzo region, L'Aquila and Scanno have living nativities on Christmas Day as do many other small villages in the region.
Living nativity scenes in the Liguria region include the towns of Calizzano, Roccavignale, and Diano Arentino during December.
Vetralla, in the Northern Lazio region, has the oldest living nativity in the region. Chia, near Soriano, also in Northern Lazio, holds a large living nativity on December 26 with more than 500 participants.