While Christmas traditions change from region to region, over the festive season Italy's favourite ritual remains il presepio - the nativity scene.
For a Catholic nation, there's nothing more Christmassy than a small family in a wooden manger because Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, first and foremost.
Christmas in Italy involves cakes, carols, school concerts, trees and long, over-flowing meals.
Just like in most Christian countries, families come together to exchange gifts while twinkly lights and tradition fills the winter air, however, in Italy everything seems superfluous to the real meaning of Christmas you'll see depicted in homes, chapels, churches and town piazze. From tiny simple figurines to real-life nativity scenes, 8 December marks the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Festa dell’Immacolata) and the official moment when nativity scenes are built and Christmas decorations go up.
Il presepio or presepe are two words equally used to describe the manger scene. Although Italians love to debate the 'correct' one, it's merely for the joy of healthy discussion as according to the Accademia della Crusca, the authority on correct Italian language, both are interchangeable.
The Latin version of Saint Luke’s Gospel says after Jesus was born, Mary laid the baby ‘in praesepio‘ - in a manger.
We use 'presepio' in Veneto, one presepio, two presepi, so let's just call it that today, shall we?
In southern Italy the nativity scene is taken to next levels - it's Christmas all year round in Naples at la Via dei Presepi in the Centro Storico!
This short, pedestrian backstreet deals exclusively in presepio figurines ranging from tiny to life-size with a skill and creativity highlighted only by Naples's wickedly cheeky sense of humour. You'll find an array of figures including the classics but also the quirky - think popstars and celebs, politicians and porn-stars, not necessarily presepio material but found in the same street. The shops lining this narrow lane are crammed with mesmerising statues but when we visited our hearts were captured most by the small scenes with moving parts depicting daily tasks of Italian life. In the most minute of detail, menial tasks come to life from clothes washing to bread making, eating spaghetti, picking apples, sweeping the floor and pouring wine. We stood there for ages while one after the other enthralled us in this quarter of the city where it's Christmas every day. If you are visiting Naples,do make a point to step into the Via dei Presepi - The Street of Nativity Scenes, amongst a selection of memorable things to see and do in Naples.
The tradition of nativity scenes in Italy can be traced back to Francis of Assisi's days. It is said the humble Saint returned from a visit to Bethlehem inspired by 'living' Birth of Christ scenes he'd seen in the Holy Land acted out by real people. He presented Assisi with a tender setting of mother, father and child along with oxen, donkey, sheep and lambs, in character of old Francis to include the animals - he was known to hold conversations and simply adored them - the more, the merrier in his eyes. Subsequently, his adoration has spanned a thousand years, where these days if you purchase a presepio in Italy it comes with at least 8 sheep.
Much of the charm is like decorating the tree, with baubles bringing back memories and ornaments imbued with sentiment, the nativity scene is typically a family moment and while the Christmas tree has only been in Italy since Queen Margherita of Savoy put one up in Rome in the late 1800s, the presepio has been around for eons.
South of the Cinque Terre sits the small fishing village Tellaro on the Gulf of La Spezie. The villagers here have a unique presepio which sits in their small seaside church but is only complete when Baby Jesus is placed in the manger after being dived out from the sea. On Christmas Eve, the town's folk gather along Tellaro's cobbled lanes, spilling into the small harbour amid mulled wine and panettone, to await the heralded divers who emerge from the waters carrying their holy baby statue. He lives underwater in the bay but at midnight on the 24th is gently carried by torchlight to the waiting manger where he's watched over by his custodians for the length of Midnight Mass.
The 'Live Nativity Scene' - il Presepio Vivente, allegedly brought to Italy by Francis of Assisi, takes over Matera in Puglia every festive season where the Sassi di Matera UNESCO site lends their timeless, authentic beauty to Matera's epic Nativity Scene. Up to 300 actors in traditional costume, props and all turn a kilometre-long stroll through these historic stone ruins into something like a movie set recounting our age-old story. Families with their animals revert back to ancient times reliving the time around the birth of Christ amongst these bygone, stone dwellings. Tickets sell out quickly - the scene is strictly controlled with timeslots over 5 days in December and 3 in January and while Matera becomes slightly manic, it's worth every effort to get here.
From grandiose sets to tiny Mura, this small, stone hamlet of 200 residents near Valdobbiadene on the Prosecco Route seems rather sleepy during the year but at Christmas lights up! Here, every house competes in a friendly village contest, carving figurines from wood or upcycling what they have to create their charmingly creative presepi built into nooks and crevices, barns and windows. Visitors amble through the hamlet's intricate, paved streets flickering with Christmas lights to end up in the tiny stone piazza where vin brulé and panettone await. Since we live nearby, we love to stop by every year - it's humbling, unsophisticated and hauntingly beautiful.
To me the most touching of presepi are the simplest and even in tiny stone chapels by the roadside, lit by a single burning candle, a small set of three figures can often be spotted meaning someone took the time and a prayer to put them there. If you're ever in Italy on a cold, dark, December's evening always look out for presepi lights, large or small, because while churches will traditionally have figures set up on their lawns or on the piazze, many homes make their own presepio every year, lit up in their gardens, on their terraces or windowsills for all to see - these will last until 6 January when the last festive celebration 'Twelfth Night' - l'Epifania signals time for all to be packed away, but mind, you won't spot Baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas Day because he wasn't born before then!