Translated by Alanna Quintyne

In today’s article called “Nativity scenes in Italy” I am talking about an Italian tradition typical of Christmas time. If you want to know more about this topic, don’t miss the following lines!

When does the Christmas season officially begin in Italy? It starts on December 8th and lasts for almost a month up until January 6th which is the day of the Epiphany.

Since I have already talked about Christmas and the Christmas period in another article, today I would like to focus on the symbols of Christmas, symbols without which this period would not be the same. In particular, we’re going to focus on the nativity scene and the vocabulary which is related to it! Ready to get started?

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The Vocabulary Related to the Nativity Scene

  • Il Presepe (Nativity Scene)

The presepe or presepio (nativity scene) is the representation of the birth of Jesus through figurines. The nativity scene can be big or small and can also have many characters or only just the essential ones, i.e., the ones that represent Nativity. 

  • La Natività (Nativity)

Nativity (natività) shows the birth of Jesus and the characters that are traditionally part of it are obviously Mary (the Virgin Mary/the Madonna, the mother of Jesus), Saint Joseph (the father of Jesus) and a the baby laid in a manger used as a cradle. Guaranteed as well are the ox and donkey which, according to tradition, warmed Jesus with their breath.  

All of the characters mentioned so far are found in a cave or a hut always with an angel above watching over them, who also has in his hands a ribbon with Gloria written on it.

  • I re magi (the Wise Men)

Among the characters which cannot be forgotten in the nativity scene are the Wise Men, the famous kings who started from the East and followed the North Star in order to reach the cave or hut which held Jesus and who bring with them a gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Typically, their figurines are placed in the nativity scene on January 6th, but one thing which I always did as a child (and that I think many other children do as well) was placing them on December 8th at the far end of the nativity scene and moving them forward little by little each day, until they arrive exactly on January 6th in the presence of Jesus.

  • The Other Characters 

As we said before, the nativity scene can be big or small. And when I say big, I mean really big. Think about the fact that there are some people who have a room dedicated to the nativity scene and it’s obvious that in these cases, there would have to be many more characters.

Guaranteed are the characters which represent the ancient trades such as the baker, the blacksmith, the shepherds with their sheep scattered throughout the nativity scene. In addition, another thing that is characteristic of these nativity scenes are the sceneries of everyday life, such as the laundress or the woman who hangs out the laundry on the terrace. 

The materials of the Nativity Scene

The nativity scene must reflect reality as much as possible and for this reason, it is often composed of natural materials such as:

  • il muschio (moss): a particular type of soft and compact plant which covers trunks and rocks especially in humid places. 
  • la sabbia (sand): often used where there are water courses. 
  • i sassolini (pebbles): very small stones that are generally used to define roads and various paths. 

There are some people for whom the construction of the nativity scene becomes a challenge every year and from time to time they enjoy making the nativity scenes into something more complex and ingenious, so much so that sometimes they are real works of engineering!

Just think that when I was little, my father used to build nativity scenes in which there were rivers and streams in which water actually flowed. Or rather, I remember a rotating nativity scene that allowed all the characters, even the minor ones, to have their moment in the spotlight when they were in the foreground. 

In short, let’s just say that the nativity scene for the more creative people can be a lot of fun!

The Living Nativity Scenes

We are almost at the end of this article, but it can’t end without mentioning the famous living nativity scenes. Have you ever heard of them?

There are some villages, especially the smallest and oldest ones, in which the population organizes these nativity scenes.

People dress up and each person performs a role: some as Virgin Mary, others as Saint Joseph, many re-propose the ancient crafts that nowadays no longer exist or have become rare, for example, a person who spins wool. However, the most particular thing of all is the role of Jesus that can be played by a doll, but also by a (very small) real child who is put into these clothes and participates in the performance. 

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Credits photo: Unsplash

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