Unfortunately, the Italian Christmas Presepe is a fading tradition.
I admire those who won’t abandon it for more “modern” alternatives – or at all. Setting up a rural landscape, paying attention to every tiny detail, and involving the whole family in a manual activity feel like a precious memory to frame and cherish forever.
THE PRESEPE TRADITION
For days before Christmas Eve, Italian families reunite each evening around the crib to make Mary and Joseph go one step further towards the manger.
Baby Jesus is absent, hidden somewhere in the house. He will reappear only at midnight on Christmas Eve during another, more festive, family gathering. But not the last: from then to January 6, it will be time for the Three Kings to move, one step each day, towards baby Jesus. More gathering, more family intimacy.
MAKING A PRESEPE
Italian families usually have their generations-passed Presepe. Made of paper-mache statuettes – the best are from Naples, but I’ve recently heard of the Apulian too -, rock-resembling or starry-sky paper, fake grass, mirrors for the ponds, and lights.
The crib is situated somewhere in the house, wherever there’s a spot big enough to host it, but also visible to visitors. A southern tradition is to place it right under the tree.
I have a memory of me as a kid and my siblings being sent on a moss-collecting mission in the woods. Our father followed us with a basket and a little knife.
It was never enough. He wanted our Presepe to be full of grassy spots and more realistic. A bit more. A bit more. And a bit more.
At the time, I hated all the fuss around a project that only my father and the little ones seemed to enjoy. Now it’s different. I think one day you’ll find me cutting off moss from a wet log and attentively displaying the personages of a rural, old-world set.
For now, I must admit I have a tiny one-piece Presepe given to me by my mom as a blessing for my home. But my favorite is my very pagan crib, which is not a nativity scene at all: my super cute collection of Lemax Christmas Village statuettes. A cozy, dreamy scenery that helps me pretend I have a Winter Wonderland out of my Roman snow-only-once-every-five-years window.
A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR ITALIAN COOKS
Not that Christmas in Italy, especially in Rome, isn’t whimsical in its own peculiar way. But those couple of times it snowed, well, it was a dream!
Enjoy your Italian Christmas presepe, whatever your style!