There are two distinct types of Italians, according to Neapolitan writer Luciano De Crescenzo: those who put up Christmas trees and those who set up Nativity scenes. Each December, northern Italians do what most people around the world do at Christmas time: they decorate pine trees with colorful glass balls and strings of lights, a tradition which originated in the early 1600s in Germany. Most southern Italians, however, prepare for Christmas with a much older and certainly much more Italian tradition: the presepe or Nativity crèche.
Setting up the presepe, which literally means “manger,” is a painstaking ritual which involves the entire family. Each December, boxes containing figurines are opened and any broken limbs are lovingly glued back on. For not even the most age-worn statue is ever thrown away, and every year children welcome the Holy Family and shepherds, angels and animals, as if they were old friends.
In 1223, a humble monk who was to become known as St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy, returned from a trip to Bethlehem with the inspiration to represent the holy birth using real people. According to St. Bonaventure, himself a Franciscan, St. Francis decided he “would like to portray the Child born in Bethlehem, to see the hardships a newborn babe must endure, how he was placed in a manger and how he lay in the straw between the ox and the ass.”
On Dec. 24, 1223, in a grotto that was part of a monastery in the town of Greccio, about 60 miles from Rome, St. Francis re-enacted the moment of Christ's birth, using actual people, along with animals “borrowed” from the feudal lord. Visitors came from far and wide to pay homage to the Bambin’ Gesu (Baby Jesus), represented by the youngest baby that could be found in town. Though living manger scenes still occur throughout Italy, the presepe eventually became an artistic representation of Christmas that found its way into most people's homes, as well as every church in the country.
In Rome, strolling around the center and visiting churches to admire their Nativity scenes is a favorite Advent pastime. The oldest presepe still in existence, by artist Arnolfo di Cambio, dates back to 1280 and is considered one of the greatest treasures of the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
The most famous Nativity scene in Rome, however, is found in the church of Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill. The life-size statue of the Santo Bambino, or Holy Child, said to have been carved from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, is considered to possess miraculous healing powers. Until recent years, the Santo Bambino was actually taken out of the church periodically to bring comfort to the sick and dying. A few times he was actually stolen, though he was always returned to the church. For this reason he is now kept in a glass case in the sacristy, bedecked with jewels and precious objects donated by the faithful. At Christmas, however, he is lowered into the manger, surrounded by dozens of beautifully crafted shepherds and townspeople, as hosts of angels watch over him from a magnificent star-lit sky.
Fortunately for those who can't get to Rome during the Christmas season, there are several churches with permanent Nativity scenes. The most famous is in the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, whose huge Neapolitan presepe includes hundreds of figures and animals, as well as 50 angels. The church of Santa Maria in Via also boasts a splendid Neapolitan crèche.
The creation of figurines for the presepe developed into an important genre of folk art and craftsmanship, which reached its high point in 17th-century Naples.
Nowhere, in fact, is the passion for the presepe greater than it is in this city. It has been said that when Neapolitans are not busy setting up their Nativity scenes, they are thinking about how to make next year's presepe even more special.
In Naples, all crèche figurines are referred to as “shepherds” and the place to go to purchase them is Via San Gregorio Armeno, a street known as the “shepherds' pathway.” In this huge open-air market, throngs of Neapolitans search for the perfect addition to their family's presepe, whether it be a precious terra-cotta angel, a star-filled papier-maché sky, or a star of Bethlehem crafted by the artisans working in this ancient neighborhood. The dizzying selection is not limited to traditional crèche figures, but also includes statuettes representing the country's best known politicians, writers, and actors.
Enormous outdoor presepi adorn Italy's most important piazzas. Most Romans, as well as Christmas tourists, manage to pay at least one visit to St. Peter's Square in order to see the Nativity scene which features larger-than-life-size statues. Other famous outdoor crèches in Rome are located on the Spanish steps and in the middle of Piazza Navona.
Piazza Navona, considered by many to be Rome's loveliest square, is completely transformed during the Christmas season. Children ride a 19th-century Viennese carousel, as the smell of traditional Christmas foods like torrone (nougat candy) and freshly roasted chestnuts fills the air. Stands and booths sell all sorts of things, from cheap plastic toys and trinkets—and a large selection of presepe items, ranging from inexpensive mass-produced shepherds to fine hand-carved angels.
This is also the place to see the Befana, a magical old crone who brings gifts to Italian children on Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Legend has it that the Three Kings stopped during their journey to the Christ child, and asked an old woman for food and shelter. She refused, but later she had a change of heart, so she gathered some toys and sweets in a bag, and set out to join the Magi and pay her respects to the Savior. But she never found the kings or the stable. So each year she wanders the earth looking for the baby Jesus. Since she never finds him, she leaves gifts for good Italian children and lumps of coal for the bad.
Piazza Navona's Befana shares the spotlight with Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), a relative newcomer to the Italian Christmas scene. The first time Santa Claus appeared in Italy was at the end of World War II, when American soldiers sporting long white beards and dressed in red suits distributed toys and candies to Italian children.
A favorite Italian saying is “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi,” which means, “Christmas with your family and Easter with whomever you please.” Christmas is, in fact, a time for huge family gatherings over traditional holiday meals.
Christmas Eve dinner is always meatless. The first course features a huge variety of pasta with assorted fish-based sauces, while countless types of fish, including eel, salmon, and swordfish show up as main courses.
In Rome, as midnight approaches, church bells start to chime across the city, providing a kind of wake-up call to those still lingering over Christmas Eve dinner.
One of the most beautiful midnight Masses in Rome takes place in the church of Aracoeli. In a uniquely Roman tradition, bagpipers dressed in traditional shepherd's clothing honor the Santo Bambino by playing old pastoral tunes, much like the shepherds who left their flocks around Bethlehem to visit the Christ Child. After the solemn Mass is over, the Santo Bambino is carried around the church in procession, and everyone scrambles to get a closer look, or perhaps even to touch the beloved statue.
On Christmas Day, Italians indulge in an endless feast, where meat is the centerpiece of the menu. After elaborate lasagnas and meat-stuffed pastas like tortellini and ravioli, it's time for roast lamb, turkey, or capon. Typical Christmas sweets include panettone, a type of sweet bread studded with raisins and candied fruit, and the buttery pandoro (“golden bread”).
Like elsewhere in the world, Christmas in Italy has become much more commercialized in recent years. The only reason that Santa Claus hasn't completely replaced the Befana is that Italian children really enjoy the fact that they get to receive presents on both Christmas and Epiphany.
Yet there is much reason for hope concerning the religious observance of the holiday, judging from the crowds of people who attend midnight Mass. Each year, more than 10,000 people hear Mass at St. Peter's Square, and this year, once more, voices raised in prayer from Romans and from all the peoples of the world will be heard in the Eternal City.
Berenice Cocciolillo writes from Rome.