The Italians looooovvve nativity scenes, known here as presepi. Saint Francis of Assisi supposedly launched the fad in 1223 when he constructed a nativity scene with real oxes and asses in a cave near Greccio, about an hour and a half north of Rome. His purpose, according to his biographer St. Bonaventure, was to “excite the inhabitants of Greccio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion.” Francis felt that Christmas had become too commercial. So there you go. People were already moaning about the war on Christmas nearly 800 years ago. Apparently the inhabitants of Greccio were very excited indeed: they ascribed many miracles to the presepi (some even say the carved image of the infant came to life) and they’ve been celebrating the fact ever since. This seems to be pretty much Greccio’s only claim to fame.
In the 18th Century, Naples became a centre for presepe-making and there’s still a whole street devoted to artisan workshops stuffed with nativity scenes. The Neapolitans get somewhat carried away and you can get all sorts of figures for your presepe that don’t figure in the biblical story. I am, for example, the proud owner of a tiny figure of a woman surrounded by flames, burning in hell. Apparently, you can also get Elvis Presley and Silvio Berlusconi. The Vatican has hosted gigantic presepi since 1992.
Living nativity scenes (presepe vivente ) are popular in the South, including in Puglia where I visited one a few weeks ago. They tend to be elaborate affairs, featuring the classic crèche scene as well as a mock rural ye olde village, complete with artisans in traditional costumes working at their various trades. Some of the roles are played by real people, others by white cement figures (except for Mary and Joseph and the ox and ass who are allowed some colour in deference to their special status). The show lasts for only a few days around Christmas and New Years but the sculptures are on display all year. The first time I drove by the presepe vivente near the little town of Alliste, I thought the sheep clustered on the side of the hill were real.