It is a very ancient tradition, since the first mention of "crib" (manger) can be found in 1035 AD documents, relating to a church in Naples even though tradition says that Saint Francis of Assisi was the first to create a Presepio with real people and animals. During the 17th and 18th century Naples turned the Nativity scene into an art form. The Presepio included the nativity scene but also represented life in Naples at the time. Spirituality and daily life, sacred and profane, prayers and irony are all part of Neapolitan presepio, as only in this city of contradiction is possible to see. Living nativities are a common site in Italy during the Christmas season. On Christmas Eve small towns in Italy celebrate the day with a live nativity scene much as St. Francis of Assisi did in 1223. There are live animals, children and adults playing the roles of the Holy Family and a newborn playing the baby Jesus.
Almost every Italian family has its own set of figurines and mine were bought by my parents around 1940 and later years and much later divided between my sister and myself. When we visit it is a joy to see the other half of the Presepio and recognize figurines like old friends. Here are some images from my own Presepio.
The wooden houses were made by our maternal grandfather and they are magic in the evening when the lights are on.
The shepherd on the top right is calling everyone to assist to the event.
The lady in the middle brings fresh baked bread to the manger.
This lady instead brings a camisole to cover Baby Jesus and you can see the Wise Men (Re Magi) and a camel approaching the stable. Every day they move a little closer, so that on January 6th they are in front of Jesus with their gifts, myrrh, gold and incense.
An old man is helped by his son to walk toward the stable. You may notice out of scale items, since they were added over the years and the landscape is quite surreal: pine trees and palms go together, sand for desert and moss for greenery, western clothes and Middle east or African animals... but it is still magic for me to set the scene every year. The giraffe over the years has lost one leg, some figurines are partially broken, all colors are fading, but not the memories they evoke!
The manger is empty, Jesus is not born yet, it is family tradition to put Him there only after midnight, when December 25th is just starting or in the morning and an Italian tradition is that the youngest family member place the baby Jesus in the crib.
And here you can see Him, kept comfortable by the straw and the warmth of the animals in the stable.
But the most amazing "Nativity" are the ones created in Naples and surrounding region. The most precious one is at the Royal Palace in Caserta, near Naples, it was made in 18th century, with clay and original textiles. A small part can be seen in this image.
Only in the 18th century Neapolitan Nativity added real looking people to the scene, shepherds, peasants, craftsmen, sellers of goods. Here are some good examples of Nativity found in churches or private houses around Italy.
During last century the tradition of a Christmas tree became also part of Italian culture, but most of the time the tree is still accompanied by a Presepio.
Christmas eve dinner is a big celebration, meat is not allowed the whole December 24th, and at dinner (called Cenone or big dinner) and held very late, around 10:00PM, on many Italian tables king is the "capitone" or eel, cooked in different ways, fish, shellfish, especially clams, and whatever the family can afford to make a feast.
In the North, and lately also in the South, at the end of dinner a must is the Panettone (a sweet raised bread with candied fruits invented in Milan during the Renaissance) always accompanied by different nuts, dried dates and tangerines.
The following day Christmas lunch is celebrated with the extended family, appetizers are followed by a broth with tortellini and for the main course no turkey but most of the time a stuffed capon with all sort of seasonal vegetables and of course another slice of Panettone or any other Christmas sweets like Marrons glacés (glazed chestnuts) together with Torrone (almond nougat).
On Christmas eve children are allowed to stay up and after dinner many families still go to Midnight Mass, walking briskly in the crisp air, under a starry sky or sometimes with snow flakes falling down, but the church is always warm, filled with chants accompanied by the organ, lit by hundreds of candles. Everyone feels happy to be there and to exchange the sign of peace with the persons sitting nearby, shaking their hands and pronouncing the magic words "Peace be with you". Time stands still.
From my house to yours: Peace and Joy be with you!