Every home I visited at Christmas in my childhood had a nativity scene under the tree, and as children we naturally gravitated towards the miniature scene carefully examining the delicate figurines and rearranging them while the adults enjoyed their visit.
When I married, we inherited my husband’s childhood nativity scene from his family and it was much more elaborate then the one I grew up with. Thankfully, it was tended with care over the years and most of the supporting cast of characters, including shepherds, Magi and animals are still intact. I don’t know exactly how old it is, but let’s just say it is probably 70+ years, and the heirloom has now been passed down to my daughter and her family, for the next generation.
Nativity scenes are known from 10th-century Rome. They are said to have been popularized by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223, when he constructed a nativity scene in a cave in the town of Greccio, Italy and held Christmas Eve mass and a nativity pageant there. The practice spread to other towns and cities across Europe over the next two centuries and expanded to include more characters, and even to depict an entire village.
Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the Christian world, dependent on local tradition and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, and public lands and buildings.
They are erected indoors or outdoors, and typically composed of figurines depicting baby Jesus resting in a manger, Mary, and Joseph. Other figures in the scene may include angels, shepherds, various animals and the Magi, who would typically appear later in accordance with the time it took them to reach Bethlehem.
In certain parts of Italy, and the world, living nativity scenes following the tradition of Saint Francis are a popular alternative to static crèches. If you are a nativity buff, some of the most interesting presepi viventi can be found in
- Greccio, Reiti – complete with music and a lights show
- Custonaci, Trapani – displayed inside a cave on Sicily’s western coast
- Sassi di Matera – with unique stonework depicting the magic of Bethlehem
- San Biagio, Mantova – residents portray more than 150 characters of the nativity each night
- Dogliani, Cuneo – Houses and shops are transformed into artisan’s workshops with more than 350 live characters.
Renowned manger scenes outside of Italy, include the colourful “Krakow szopka” in Poland,which uses historical buildings of Krakow as a backdrop for the Nativity of Jesus. The edifice most often used as inspiration for the szopka is St-Mary’s Basilica with its easily recognizable spires .
In southern France, the Provencal creche is also notable, using hand-painted terracotta figurines called “santons” meaning little saints. The Provençal crèche is the mirror in miniature of a 19th-century Provençal village and can include up to 55 individual figures representing various characters from Provençal village life such as the miller carrying his sack of flour on a donkey, the scissors grinder, the farmer’s wife with her basket of fresh eggs, the blind man, and the chestnut seller, the schoolmistress and children, Monsieur le Maire and of course, Monsieur le Curé.
Nearly every town in Italy has a presepio, often of life-sized crèche figures or even a living tableau that retells the story of that heralded night in Bethlehem. In Vatican City, a huge presepe is constructed in Saint Peter’s Square and unveiled on Christmas Eve. Italians will tell you that in their opinion, some of the best presepi are in Greccio, Rome, and Naples.
In Naples, hundreds of precepi are erected throughout the city. Some creches are very elaborate and may be handmade or use antique figures. The streets in central Naples are actually filled with displays and stalls selling Nativity scenes all year.
A nativity scene in Alicante, Spain has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the biggest and tallest in the world, taking the accolade held for 30 years by a display in Monterrey, Mexico. The scene consists of a 59-foot-tall statue of Joseph with smaller figurines of Mary and baby Jesus. The previous record measured just over 17 feet at its highest point.
As a traveller, my desire to experience Christmas in other parts of the world has grown as I learn of customs and practices in other countries – particularly Europe. I will put it out in the Universe that I would like the opportunity to travel next December to either Germany, Austria and of course to Italy or Spain and participate in their Christmas celebrations. For now, I am content to travel through YouTube and the internet, and be amazed by what I am discovering.