Traditionally, the main focus of Christmas decorations in Italy is the Nativity scene, presepe or presepio in Italian. Every church has a presepe and they can be found in squares, shops, and other public areas. Displays often go beyond the manger scene and may even include a representation of the entire village. Presepi are usually set up starting December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, through January 6, Epiphany but some are unveiled on Christmas Eve.
Many people set up a Christmas crib in their house and figurines for nativity scenes are made in many parts of Italy, with some of the best coming from Naples and Sicily. Although the presepe is usually set up before Christmas, baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve.
The Nativity scene is said to have originated with St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 (see Saint Francis in Italy when he constructed a nativity scene in a cave in the town of Greccio and held Christmas Eve mass and a nativity pageant there. Greccio reenacts this event each year.
Carving figurines for nativity scenes started in the late 13th century when Arnolfo di Cambio was commissioned to carve marble nativity figures for the first Rome Jubilee held in 1300. The nativity can be seen in the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore Church.
Best places to see Chrsitmas Cribs, or Presepi, in Italy
Naples is the best city to visit for their presepi. Hundreds of nativity scenes are erected throughout the city. Some creches are very elaborate and may be handmade or use antique figures. Starting December 8, the Church of Gesu' Nuovo, in Piazza del Gesu', displays nativity scene art work from the Neapolitan Nativity Scenes Association. The street Via San Gregorio Armeno in central Naples is filled with displays and stalls selling Nativity scenes all year. See our pictures of Via San Gregorio Armeno and Naples Nativity Pictures.
Vatican City erects a huge presepe in St. Peter's Square for Christmas and is usually unveiled on Christmas Eve. A Christmas Eve mass is held in St. Peter's square, usually at 10 pm.
In Rome some of the biggest and most elaborate presepi are found in Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Euclide, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill. A life-size nativity scene is set up in Piazza Navona where a Christmas marketplace is also set up. The Church of Saints Cosma e Damiano, by the main entrance to the Roman Forum, has a large nativity scene from Naples on display all year (see photo).
Bethlehem in the Grotto - an elaborate lifesize nativity scene is created each year and transported to a beautiful grotto in the Abruzzo commune of Stiffe, about 20 miles from L'Aquila. The scene is illuminated and can be visited during December.
Verona has an international display of nativities in the Arena through January.
Trento in northern Italy's Alto-Adige region has a large nativity scene in Piazza Duomo.
Jesolo, 30 km from Venice, has a sand sculpture nativity made by top international sand sculpture artists. It takes place daily in Piazza Marconi through mid-January. Donations are used to fund charitable projects.
Celleno, a tiny town in the northern Lazio region about 30 km from Viterbo, has a magnificent presepe that is set up for viewing all year. Celleno is also famous for its cherries.
Many churches in Milan have elaborate nativity scenes set up around Christmas time.
Presepio Museums in Italy
Il Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples has an elaborate collection of nativity scenes from the 1800s.
Il Museo Tipologico Nazionale del Presepio, under the church of Saints Quirico e Giulitta in Rome, has over 3000 figurines from all over the world made out of almost anything you can imagine. The museum has very limited hours and is closed in summer but they are open each afternoon December 24-January 6. In October they have a course where you can learn to make presepe yourself. Phone 06 679 6146 for information.
Il Museo Tipologico del Presepio in Macerata in the Marche region has more than 4000 nativity pieces and a 17th century presepe from Naples.
Page 2: Presepi Viventi - Where to see Living Nativity Scenes in Italy