Presepe: A Collection of Nativity Stories from Italy by Madame Renard

Italian nativity or Precepe

Nativities have held a special place in my heart since I was a very little girl. Growing up in Santa Fe (many years ago when it was still a quiet little Spanish village) I was surrounded by beautiful nativities during the winter holidays and have never lost the feelings of awe and peace that came over me while viewing a particularly beautiful nativity.

The nativity above was given to me by my grandmother many years ago. It originally was one of a collection of beautiful carved nativities handcrafted by Italian artisans that we sold in our little shop. As far as I know, this is the only one left in the family.

So it seems to me that sharing it here is the perfect way to open this very special post about the traditions of nativities in Italy - written for us by Silvia Trivellato. Many of you already know Silvia from her blog, Madame Renard and the beautiful handcrafted items she sells in her shop by the same name.

I am so grateful to Silvia for composing and sharing this beautiful collection of Italian nativity traditions.


Rome Holiday Walk

Image by Context Travel of a Presepe in Rome 

The Sacred and The Profane: 8 Random Things About The Italian Presepe  

1- "Presepe" is the word we use in Italy to define a representation of the nativity of Jesus. Until 10-20 years ago people also used the variant "presepio", but this word is now perceived a bit "old style". The word "presepe/presepio" has latin origins and it means "in front of a manger/crib". The plural is "presepi".  

2- The tradition says that the first presepe was created by Saint Francis of Assisi in the small town of Greccio (central Italy) in 1223 following a visit to the Holy Land. His visit to Jesus's birthplace was most likely his inspiration.

3- Italian families usually set up their presepe (and Christmas tree, too) on a specific day: December 8th. It is a day of holiday in Italy, because we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception. This day is perceived like the start of Christmas time and there's some free-from-job time to do some holiday home decor.

4- Usually Jesus's figurine isn't placed in the presepe till Christmas day.

This is because during the advent we are waiting for Jesus, so the manger remains empty (waiting for him) until midnight of December 24th, when a member of the family (usually the youngest child) takes the baby figurine and lays it in the manger.

In some families there's a different tradition: mom and dad lay Jesus's figurine on the manger during the night, when the children are sleeping, so they will see it in the morning after unwrapping their gifts under the Christmas tree.

This tradition recently has begun to be abandoned, since a lot of presepi for sale haven't a removable Jesus's figurine.

Nativity (precepe)

Image by Silvia - Madame Renard

5- Also figurines of the three wise men don't appear in the center of the nativity scene till the Epiphany (January 6th). They aren't static characters, but rather they are constantly on the move! Usually they are placed far from the Holy Family (on the mountains, if the presepe has them, or in a corner) and slowly moved closer day after day. They reach Jesus on the day of Epiphany. This symbolizes the long journey they made to reach Jesus from their far kingdoms following the comet.

6- In the traditional Italian presepe you can find some different kinds of animals: a donkey and an ox (warming up Jesus with their breath), sheep (a lot of sheep!) together with shepherds, the camels of the three wise men, some hens or ducks or other domestic animals. (My favorite figurines in my parents' presepe are a young man carrying a baby pig on his shoulders and a little girl keeping an eye on her ducks).

Nativity (precepe)

 Image by Silvia - Madame Renard

7- There is in Italy another amazing and popular nativity tradition, called "presepe vivente" (we can translate as "living nativity scene"). They are visited by a lot of people during the entire holiday period. In these representations men and women (and kids, too!) "act" the different characters of the traditional presepe, usually in the beautiful set of a small village with old and rural buildings.

These volunteer actors wear traditional clothes and do ancient jobs (you can find women knitting and crocheting or spinning wool, potters, shepherds, smiths, etc). In a central point there is placed a cave (or a hovel) and there you will see the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and Jesus in the manger.

This is not far from the original idea by Saint Francis.

Some years ago I visited a beautiful presepe vivente in the small village of Monterosso Almo (Sicily, southern Italy) and these are some photos I took:

Nativity (precepe)

Image by Silvia - Madame Renard

Nativity (precepe)

Image by Silvia - Madame Renard

Nativity (precepe)

Image by Silvia - Madame Renard

8- Although the tradition of presepe is alive in all of Italy, from north to south, some cities dedicate themselves to it in a particular way.

This is the case in Naples, where a street (Via San Gregorio Armeno) is known as "the street of nativities", because it is full of shops where artisans create and sell all that is needed to set up your presepe. You can see a beautiful youtube video about it here (English subtitles)

They make classic and old-style works, but also have fun: every year some of these artisans make caricatures of contemporary men and women who have become famous for many kinds of reasons, and model them as presepe figurines. To share only two examples: President Obama with Michelle and William and Kate.  

A sacred thing became profane!

(Pam's note: The term profane in the context of this article means worldly, temporal, secular.)


I hope you will join me again on December 17th for a wonderful surprise I can hardly wait to share- a surprise from several members of the EtsyItalia Team.

aaaw Pam your one is really

aaaw Pam your one is really beautiful, i had a modern mother when i was a kiddo. We may play with other religion children. In my childhood that wasn't commen.
I loved my catholic friends in those day because they had a tiny stable.
We prothestands of course not-S
I have now some kitschy plastic figures and some other strange native walldecalls.
but you must glue them on the windows.
i still haven't found them back.
but... perhaps one year i will use them all.LOL
In Utrecht in the special religion museon you can watch a antique Italian stable, from 1600 , i have tried to watch it every xmas time.
It was very rarly and sooo well preserved. That had to be difficult in the Netherlands i presume. Because of those silly figths about relions we had during our history-S
it's not a prettty story, and i'm still ashamed, i was just glad that my mom didn't had the same prejudices as her friends. I was one of the rare ones that had to spend my schoolyears on a public school, allthought it was a montessorischool.LOL
So there were several children with an other religion then we had. That was great.
I still heard of others of my generation strange forbidden things of this subject in their childhood.
I was just yellous of those who had such a stable with native figures around the xmas time.LOL
So i love yours , be careful with it. and enjoy it during this special time;-D

This is such a wonderful

This is such a wonderful post. I love how you share these Christmas ideas from around the world.