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91. The Nativity Scene

Updated: Mar 22, 2020

By Giulio D'Ercole -

The nativity scene, in Italian called "Presepe" or "Presepio" is one of the many traditional ways Christian Italians celebrate Christmas. It is a representation of the birth of Jesus. Usually the Nativity scene exhibits a large number of figures going from the infant Jesus (usually placed in his cradle only at midnight of the 24th of December), his mother, Mary and her husband, Joseph, to a donkey and an ox in the cave, and then shepherds, sheep, and angels that can be displayed near the manger, intended to accommodate farm animals, as described in the Gospel of Luke. Part of the scene are also the Magi and their camels, described in the Gospel of Matthew. Those are three wise men coming to bring their precious presents to baby Jesus: Gold, incense and myrrh.

In Italy the making of the nativity scene is taken very seriously both by families, small villages and even big towns like Rome, Milan and Naples. "Presepi" in fact are set in private houses, churches and squares where it is possible to admire them in all sizes and forms: from simple small ones, to very large ones that have moving characters (sort of puppets). In some small towns Presepi are also organized as real theatrical performances with real men, women, children and animals involved in the staging of the important Christian event.

What is very interesting is the fact that most of the times, even if the scene should be historically at the days of Jesus, it instead represent scenes of daily life from the Middle Ages or even later. This is the case of the crib represented in the picture below, in which the stable where he is located is in the middle of some shops of the 1600s.

But who was the first to think of a representation of the nativity scene? Apparently Saint Francis of Assisi is the one credited for the first live nativity scene in 1223, and he did it in order to cultivate the worship of Christ. He himself had recently been inspired by his visit to the Holy Land, where he'd been shown Jesus's traditional birthplace. The scene's popularity inspired communities throughout Catholic countries to stage similar pantomimes.

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