Nativity scenes are very popular in Italy and are generally found in every household. The nativity originated in Italy in the 1200’s when St. Francis of Assisi asked Giovanni Vellita from the village of Greccio to create a manger scene. St. Francis then performed Christmas mass in front of this nativity scene.
The nativity scene that most Americans think of consists of about ten characters Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the three wise men, a shepherd and a few animals. In Italy the nativity is called a presepio (manger scene). The presepio contains large numbers of biblical characters, angels, animals and people from every day life.
During the 17th and 18th century Naples turned the nativity into an art form. The presepi included the nativity scene but also represented life in Naples at the time. Today many artisans are still dedicated to the craft of creating hand made figures for presepi.
Nativities in Italy are made with materials found in the surrounding area and often include items associated with that area. In Sicily you will find presepi that are made using items from the sea while in northern Italy they may be made of olive wood.
The crib in the manger scene is left empty until Christmas day when the youngest family members place the baby Jesus in the crib.
Living nativities are a common site in Italy during the Christmas season. On Christmas Eve small towns in Italy celebrate the day with a live nativity scene much as St. Francis of Assisi did in 1223. There are live animals, children and adults playing the roles of the Holy Family and a newborn playing the baby Jesus.
One of the largest nativity scenes in Italy is in the Piazza San Pietro, the piazza in front of St. Peter’s. Each year life-size figures are erected along with a large Christmas tree creating a display that is enjoyed by Romans and tourists alike.