The scene can be as simple as a little manger, to very elaborate, with moving figures, lights, mini-waterfalls—the works.
Something you’ll notice if you see a presepe in a home before Christmas is that the baby Jesus isn’t actually in the nativity scene—he makes his appearance in correspondence with his birth, ie, Christmas Eve. Placing the baby Jesus in his crib is a task usually entrusted to a child in the house and is a big event!
Probably nowhere is more famous for this tradition than Naples, where every year you can wander Via San Gregorio Armeno and be transported to a world of nativity scenes and all the fixin’s you’d ever need to make the most elaborate presepe you can dream up (hence "Crib Street") . On my recent day trip, we wandered onto this street purely by accident, and I discovered that it’s next to impossible to come out on the other end empty-handed. We bought a birthday present for a friend of ours who collects pieces (only from Naples though—he’s a “presepe snob”) for his presepe, which is quite impressive and gets more so every year. I also couldn’t resist parting with €4 to buy a kit for playing Naples bingo, with wooden markers and illustrated cards. Naples has a fascinating tradition that revolves around symbols and their associated numbers (which can then be used to play the lottery), which I would like to take up in a future post.
Something I think is also interesting to point out is that the presepe doesn't necessarily have to have a religious theme. Some presepi can simply represent country scenes or village scenes. I'm not sure if the baby Jesus is actually obligatory in these types of Italian presepe...does anyone know?
Well, as Dick Callaway, mayor of St. Albans, West Virginia, said: "It's not easy to put a light-up representation of a baby in a small manger scene, you know."
So for now let’s just wander down Via Gregorio Armeno and the surrounding area and see what we can come up with.
Of course it wouldn't be Naples without a little of that Neapolitan ingenuity. Every year some of the most memorable moments of the year are transformed into presepe figurines. Remember this one? Something to do with a sister?
If you want to read more about presepi, here's an article from About.com. My pal Avery, another americana a Roma, also wrote about her take on this Italian tradition here.
I probably won't be able to get around to writing a post this year about the living nativity scene at St. Peters. But here's an article about this year's tree, the tallest ever. And here is some more information about where to see presepi in Italy.
Do any of you set up a presepe for Christmas? I don't have one but I'd like to start one day when we have children. I think it must be a fun tradition for them and for families to do together.
What are your Christmas, or holiday season, traditions?