From Greccio to the World: the True Story of the Nativity Scene

A typical Neapolitan presepe.

In December of 1223, in the little Umbrian hill town of Greccio, something happened which would change forever the way the world celebrates Christmas. In that year, St. Francis of Assisi, that “most Italian of Saints and most saintly of Italians”, was inspired to develop a detailed representation of the story of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ so as to enkindle more devotion. St. Francis believed that by making it easier for the faithful to visualize the abject poverty of the stable into which was born the King of Kings, the Saint could better engender that devotion and reach even the hardest of hearts.

After requesting and receiving permission from the Pope, St. Francis transformed a local stable into the stable of Bethlehem, with a real ox and donkey, and preached to the people of the town who had gathered. This continued throughout the Christmas Season that year, with Masses being offered in the stable and with St. Francis teaching and preaching. St. Bonaventure, who wrote a biography of St. Francis, says that “Greccio was transformed into a second Bethlehem”, and that Francis succeeded in his wish that this celebration should “move the people to greater devotion”.

The Saint couldn’t have known what he had started; he passed from this world only three years later. But, the story of Greccio spread rapidly, and before too long, miniature representations of that first Christmas were being skillfully (or, if not so skillfully, at least lovingly) arranged by artisans and simple folk, alike. The practice of displaying a presepe (from the Latin praesepe, meaning a stall) in every house and church caught on quickly on the Italian peninsula, particularly in the south. Soon, Italians were building entire Nativity villages in the miniature, most appearing more like their own communities than Bethlehem. Meanwhile, the practice spread to Spain and Portugal, then on to France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Appearances and sizes have varied widely over the centuries (as they still do); however, the central theme of a miniature representation of the birth of Christ is common to all.

It was in the eighteenth century in the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily that the presepe evolved into a popular art. By that time, artisans who constructed these Nativity sets were known as figurari and the miniature figures which populated the presepi (plural of presepe) came to be known collectively as pastori, from the Italian word for shepherd, one of the central characters in the depiction. It was the Bourbon King Carlo III, who reigned over the Realm of Southern Italy in the early eighteenth century prior to having the Crown of Spain foisted upon him at the age of forty-three, who was largely responsible for the propagation of the practice of making presepi. This is the same King Carlo III who, prior to moving to Madrid, built the world-famous San Carlo Opera House, not to mention the palaces at Caserta, Capodimonte, and Piazza Plebiscito, as well as the massive Hotel of the Poor at, appropriately enough, Piazza Carlo III.

A presepe under a Christmas tree.

King Carlo III loved mechanical things and enjoyed making elaborate settings for the Nativity, which would be set up in his palace each year on Christmas Eve. The Queen was evidently enthusiastic about presepi as well, and took pleasure in making the intricate costumes for the pastori, along with the female members of her court. The entire court took up the pastime of making presepi, and soon the nobility were all competing with one another to see who could make the most impressive one. It even became the fashion for awhile to visit the homes of those who had built particularly elaborate presepi, and it was every nobleman’s wish to be included on that circuit.

The Three Wise Men arrive in great pomp and circumstance.

The common people of Bella Napoli also became interested in building presepi and, during the Bourbon period, a zealous Dominican friar named Gregorio Maria Rocco encouraged the average Neapolitan family not to pass a Christmas Season without building and displaying a Nativity scene. Like St. Francis centuries before, Brother Gregory greatly revered the story of the birth of Christ.

Like St. Francis centuries before, Brother Gregory greatly revered the story of the birth of Christ. He too believed that a visual representation of the Son of God being born a pauper would convert even the most wicked of men. To a large extent, it was through the efforts of Brother Gregory that we have the Neapolitan presepe as we know it today. (As an aside, we also owe to Brother Gregory’s initiative and powers of persuasion those hundreds of beautiful little illuminated shrines found throughout the back streets and alleys of Naples.)

The type of presepe seen most often in Southern Italy, and without doubt the most common in Naples, is a rough wood and cork depiction of varying sizes, from a few inches square to scenes occupying six or eight square feet and which rise three or four feet high. A wood skeleton is first constructed, to which are attached strips of unfinished cork tree bark, with steps leading up and down what becomes the miniature terraced hillside. The stable-cave of the Nativity is normally below, as the rest of the presepe shows the inn from which the Holy Couple was turned away, and numerous dwellings. A castle may also be evident higher up the hill in the background, and working windmills and even waterfalls and fountains (with pumps used to circulate real water) are quite frequently built into the scene.

Most striking about the Italian presepe is that it does not at all attempt to depict what Bethlehem looked like during the rule of Caesar Augustus. On the contrary, Christ is born in a different locale – an Abruzzese mountain village, a Tuscan hill town, a small community in the province of Campania – depending on the fancy of the maker of the scene. And the pastori, particularly the inn-keeper and his clients, the merchants, the shepherds, the Magi and their entourage, and the local townspeople, are just as fanciful. As Nesta de Robeck wrote in The Christmas Crib:

“The scene of the inn gave the figurari a chance they certainly made the most of; there could be seen every variety of macaroni and fish, sausages and wines from Ischia and Capri, while a countryman unloads a cart of victuals, a salesman displays his goods, beggars hold out a hand, minstrels play the guitar or hurdy-gurdy, and the guests eat and drink and gamble. It is an allegro con brio from a Neapolitan opera and it is continued in the procession of the Kings decked out like princes from the Arabian Nights, laden with jeweled gifts, accompanied by slaves, camels, elephants, monkeys, horses, birds, and dogs…”

The inn that had no room for the Holy Family.

Those who have lived in Italy for any time longer than a rushed tourist visit, and who have had the opportunity to know the people of this sunny peninsula up close, know that there is a more significant spiritual symbolism to the supplanting of the Nativity scene to the town of the figuraro. It is out of true devotion to the Gesu Bambino, and it signifies the coming of the Promised One — not just to some remote place two thousand years ago, but to every town and to every home, every year. It is what St. Francis tried to tell the people of Greccio so long ago. And it appears that he did indeed succeed. The religious Neapolitan will tell you that the presepe is a perennial reminder that he ready himself for the coming of Emmanuel, the Messiah, the Christ. And when, on Christmas Eve, he places the Christ child in the manger of his presepe, he does so fully believing that the God-Man is being born yet again – in churches, in homes, and in men’s hearts.

One thought on “From Greccio to the World: the True Story of the Nativity Scene

  1. Well written and thoroughly enjoyed learning the origin of the “presepe.”

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