Christmas Past and Present
Posted by Alex and Huw Anderson at 14:51 on 14th December 2011
I was recently asked to come and ‘pay homage’ to my next door neighbour’s Nativity Scene (presepio or presepe in Italian), which startlingly was so big it took up half the space in his sitting room. It was an artistic marvel with no expense or effort spared in the attempt to create a convincing bucolic scene complete with, not only the traditional figures of Mary, Joseph, the animals in the stable and the three wise men bearing gifts, but also sheep, pigs, camels, swimming ducks on a glass pond, a waterfall, cattle grazing in a field made with real moss and even a black smith with what looked like a real fire blazing in his workshop. While not all Nativity Scenes are quite as grand as this, the Presepio is a traditional feature in every Italian household at Christmas time. There are even Presepi in many public squares, train stations and parks, the grandest of all being found in Naples and Rome. The Presepio is more popular than the Christmas Tree, which arrived in Italy relatively late, as it was, for a long time seen as a northern European, Protestant tradition.
The origins of the presepio are thought to be linked to the ancient Roman festival of Sigillaria when little terra cotta figurines representing the family’s ancestors were enshrined in a pastoral scene and celebrated.
Once the preserve of wealthy families who could afford the sumptuously dressed figurines made of marble or glass, the Presepio is now a common feature in every Italian house regardless of income. There are of course regional variations on this theme and in the South there is the tradition of the 'presepio vivente' or live Nativity Scene, where real people and animals are used to make up the scene of the birth of Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem (see left). Of course the baby Jesus does not make an appearance until after the night of 24 December, the crib being left empty until then. Matera, where we now live, boasts the largest live Nativity Scene in the world and people come from far and wide to see it. Whilst some, from a more conservative evangelical tradition might find all this a little too much, for others, the Presepio is a visual aid which helps build a mental picture of what it was like for Mary and Joseph in first century Palestine. The presence of the animals, the sounds and smells help to make the scene come alive in peoples’ minds as we remember the wondrous story and the gift of mercy, the real Christmas Present, Jesus Christ, Our Saviour.