It’s just like a presepe, people say of the village where I live half the year – a massive hunk of chiseled grey rock on which hundreds of tiny stone houses, domes, and towers have been built, with cellars hollowed deep into the rock face itself. Approaching from the old road snaking through hilly terrain, you catch sight of it, checkered window squares aglow above a mossy canyon.
Presepe is the name given to the Nativity Scene – the Christmas crèche, where by Italian tradition, the figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men and farm animals are placed in rustic settings –with the backdrop of old stone barns and houses, like the ones still standing here. St. Francis has been credited with creating the first presepe in 1223, at the Appenine hermitage of Greccio. St. Francis’ presepe wasn’t a fixed tableau assembled from life-sized figures or miniatures. Wanting worshipers to see “with the eyes of the flesh” Jesus’s birth in a humble manger, he set up a straw-filled crib, placed a portable altar on it, brought in an ox and a donkey, and celebrated mass there on Christmas eve. From there the tradition caught on, mingling faith, folk-art, local traditions, and pageantry, eventually becoming the heart of the Italian Christmas.
In the past, Christmas trees were a rare sight in Italian homes. The presepe was the household Christmas decoration. You built it yourself, changing it every year, out of brown paper, cardboard, moss, pebbles, and twigs, mirrors, electric lights, star-studded dark blue paper for the night sky. The more ingenious equipped them with running water, mechanical figures, and music. In addition to the main players, dozens of extras were attendance – angels, shepherds, huge flocks of sheep, and often the figures of wood, plaster, or papier maché, were passed down like cherished heirlooms. In celebration of the medieval corporazioni, many statuettes represent the different tradespeople bringing offerings to the newborn Christ: the chestnut vendor, the woodcutter, the laundress, the wool spinner, the weaver, the baker, the fishmonger. Presepi from different regions and artistic periods have their distinctive flavors, with Naples being the queen of presepi, with an entire street, San Gregorio Armeno, dedicated to the artisans who produce the settings and figurines, some still authentic, but most, these days, made in china.
In Naples, where life=theater and theater=life, the presepe mingles the sacred and the profane, for each year celebrities are added to the crowds of worshipers scattered around the crib. Obama, Sarkozy with Carla Bruni, Osama Bin Laden, Francesco Totti, the football player, are some of the past stars, embodied in collectible statuettes you can buy in the shops along Naples’ presepe street. Most recently, Donald Trump, Pope Francis, and Kim Jong-un have made an appearance, slipped in among the Three Kings.
The presepe may actually have pagan origins, for the figurines are akin to the Penates, the statuettes that the Ancient Romans kept in their kitchens, symbolizing gods of abundance, which they put on the table at dinnertime. They are also related to the Sigillum, literally “small image” of the Lares, the ancestral spirits celebrated in Ancient Rome and Etruria on December 20th in a festival known as the Sigillaria, when figurines representing spirits of dead loved ones were exchanged, and often displayed at home in miniature settings.
The presepe has also been at the center of our Christmas celebrations, too, ever since we rediscovered our passion for miniatures and pageantry after a visit to San Gregorio Armeno, where my husband renewed his connection to his Neapolitan roots. Our presepe is constructed from odds and ends collected over the months, like Styrofoam cubes, soup bowls, candy boxes, and is dedicated to a changing theme related to the year’s travels or place-based obsessions. We’ve had Tibetan stupas, Sardinian nuraghi, Etruscan necropoli, and New Age menhir sanctuaries. For the last few years, though the emphasis has been on the Cyclades!
In addition to the regular characters present at every Christmas pageant, we also have a turtle, a unicorn, a pilgrim from St James’ Way, a tiny elk, several pigs, Saint Michael the Archangel, and an E.T. all gathered to celebrate the birth of the semi divine human spirit, born the very same day as the Mithraic Sol Invictus!
Presepi designed by S. Baldassarre, Photos by S. Baldassarre, Linda Lappin, and Leah Cano