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Christmas in Umbria

Nativity Scenes and Christmas Creches in Umbria

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orvieto presepe photo

Orvieto Nativity

Wikimedia Commons

Celebrating Christmas in Umbria

Rebecca Winke, of Brigolante Guest Apartments, shares Umbrian Christmas traditions and what to see and do during the Christmas season in central Italy's Umbria region.

Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with family, Easter with whom you want).

As this popular folk adage suggests, Christmas in Italy remains a tradition-laden holiday, focused on food, family, and faith. Nowhere is this more true than in Umbria, the provincial "heart" of the Bel Paese. Here, despite encroaching commercialism and the adoption of some globalized practices with roots in Northern Europe (decorated firs and Santa Claus, among other), visitors can sample the unique flavor of this central Italian region's homegrown Natale.

Nativity Scenes in Umbria

Umbrian Creches

Centuries before Umbrians were hanging lights and tinsel on pines, they were decorating their homes, shops, piazze, and chiese with elaborate and detailed nativity scenes. Some include simply the Holy Family and supporting actors under a thatched stable, while others are sprawling masterpieces, reconstructing entire medieval villages with lit lanterns in windows, townsfolk going about their business, and gurgling streams turning waterwheels. You can hardly take two steps in Umbria without coming across one of these delightful works, but a few are worth the trouble to search out.

Massa Martana hosts the annual I Presepi D'Italia, an exhibition of nativity scenes from all over Italy. The village is a hidden gem, and the creches tucked into alcoves and shop windows along its winding streets only add to its charm. Orvieto wins the prize for the most original venue: the Etruscan archaological complex under its medieval center known as Il Pozzo della Cava . Each year a dramatic nativity scene with life sized moving figures is arranged in one of this underground labyrinth's many grottoes.

Live Nativity Scenes in Umbria

It only seems fitting that Umbria, where the first live nativity scene was organized by Saint Francis in the hamlet of Greccio almost eight centuries ago, continues to have great affection for this picturesque Christmas tradition. All across the region, sleepy medieval hamlets come to life in the days surrounding Christmas and the Epiphany (6 January) as hundreds of spectators gather with chestnuts and wine to warm them as they watch the events surrounding Christ's birth played out by costumed actors in torchlit alleys and squares. The best live nativities are found by simply asking the locals (almost every town has a nearby semi-abandoned citadel which is transformed into a period backdrop for the parish's annual pageant come December), but here are two that seem to be perennial crowd pleasers.

Greccio, site of Saint Francis' first live nativity (a simple silent tableau of the Holy Family with an ox and donkey) still holds one of Umbria's most popular Christmas pageants. Now an elaborate, historically faithful representation of medieval life, this live nativity is played out through six scenes of dialogue with hundreds of participants. (Greccio nativity) Marcellano, a tiny village in the rolling olive grove and vineyard covered hills between Gualdo Cattaneo and Giano dell'Umbria, holds a delightfully homegrown Christmas nativity each year in its historic center. Not to miss: the child actors, alternately overwhelmed and bored by the pageantry of it all. (Marcellano nativity)

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