Presepe, the Italian Christmas Nativity



A host of angels spiraled downward from the heavens to land on the little hilltop grove that contained Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Below, mirroring the angels, rose a long line of villagers and nobles waiting to pay homage to the holy family. I was inside the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, Naples, observing the extensive Cuciniello Presepe…The room was darkened which brought the nativity scene to life with its earthy colors and dramatic expression. I had never seen a nativity scene so intricately made. What I began to learn from that moment was the profound importance the Italians placed on the presepe, especially during the Christmas month.


Presepe Salerno, Amalfi Coast

The word presepe actually means ‘in front of the crib,‘ and is designed to bring to life the story of the holy nativity in Bethlehem. St. Francis of Assisi is considered to be the author of the first presepe. As recorded by his biographers, upon his return from Bethlehem, he took it upon himself to recreate the scene of the birth of Christ inside of a cave in Greccio, Umbria.

The first presepe on Christmas Eve of 1223 was a vivente, or live, nativity scene. St. Francis orchestrated a theatrical reenactment of the nativity story using the skills of the local villagers. At the crib were tied a donkey and an ox. Biographers believed that St. Francis not only hoped to use this visual aid to help others understand the poverty and simplicity of the babe in the manger but also to encourage the people to overcome the rampant greed and materialism prevailing at that time in Italy.

Presepe 2 Colleferro near Rome

The display a presepe today is a vital part of the Christmas ritual in Italy and begin to appear in homes and public places at the end of November. The street of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples is the most popular place to see nativity scenes which are viewable year round. Rome’s Sala del Bramante in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo displays over 100 nativity scenes that range from centuries-old to more modern. Inside the 2,000-year-old amphitheater of Verona is an international event consisting of hundreds of nativity scenes each year with a Christmas market just outside the Arena.

Learn about some of the more popular presepe vivente here at Catholics & Cultures. These live nativity scenes in Italy sound amazing and well worth attending should you have the opportunity.

Buon Natale!

Have you had a presepe or vivente presepe experience in Italy or locally? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts so please feel free to leave a comment.

19 thoughts on “Presepe, the Italian Christmas Nativity

  • I have grown up with the nativity scene and more recently, my mother bought us all one, small yet beautiful piece which sits on my mantel throughout Christmas.
    Buone feste e tanti auguri, Susan 😀

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      • Many years ago my mother bought a ‘manger’ setup with all the parts, plaster statues, etc and was a major part of my family Christmas decorations for years. This set up, most likely was made in Italy was purchased in the mid 1940’s and was high quality. Todays Nativity sets, especially cheap ones are made in china. The Nativity setups in public are also very popular in Spain and especially elaborate in Catalonia, especially Barcelona. In Catalan, these are called Presepes and in Spanish, Presepios. Also it’s important to pronounce the Presepes with the ‘P’ as there’s a wild clam like barnacle called Percebes.

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      • Thank you for sharing, William. The old Nativity scenes definitely have a much better quality about them.You are very fortunate to have one passed down from your mother that was delicately made it Italy.


  • I’ve seen some beautiful cribs in Rome – the ones in St Peter’s and San Marcello al Corso had lots of magical moving parts – almost like little cities in their own right. I need an excuse to go back and see them again 😁

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  • Lovely post! One of my dreams is to visit Naples to buy the wonderful figurines they make so I can have an authentic Nativity scene at home in the US. I’m told there’s an important street in Naples where one can find these figurines. Your photos are so inspiring!

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  • My presepio is the most important part of my Christmas decorations. I have it up now and it looks beautiful-but of course baby Jesus doesn’t get placed in the manger until after midnight Mass on the 24th. My Mamma has one that includes the whole village and animals. She even bakes tiny panini and baguettes to put in the bakery! i have to go to Napoli so i can get myself a zampognaro for my presepio. Ciao e Buon Natale, Cristina

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      • Sadly I have not been to S Gregorio Armeni. I did write a post about it, but I used a friend’s photos. My visits to Napoli always consist of the airport, the ferry terminal and a quick sfogliatella at Gambrinus. So sad! My friend has picked me up a few things there for me as gifts, but my presepio pieces are from all over the place. I got quite a few in Assisi in the 1990’s. I posted a few photos 2 years ago in ‘il presepio’. if I can get a good photo of my Mamma’s this year I will send it to you! Buon Natale, Cristina

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      • Well, think of the wonderful time awaiting you when you do get a chance to visit S Gregorio Armeni! I have not been there yet either….but it’s on my list and I’m busy marking things off:) Looking forward to seeing your Mamma’s presepio when you get the chance:)

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  • The presepio, made in Italy, which belonged to my husband’s parents, is the very first “decoration” that goes up at our house. I have a lovely story about the passing down of it in our family, I just need to start a blog site so I can share it!

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  • This lively Christmas custom is also observed in Spain and very lavishly in Catalonia., where manger scenes are called presebe in catalan and presepe in Spain.

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