The Nativity, or presepe, is a wide spread expression of the religious Italian Christmas spirit. It is not only a religious expression, however, but is at the heart of Italian heritage and tradition in general.
Many people put out a presepe at home in Italy as Americans would put up a Christmas tree here in the US. At the heart of the precept is the manger with baby Jesus, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and some farm animals. From there, Italians let their imaginations run wild, with some recreating entire villages complete with buildings, streets and entire scenes of everyday life. And the presepe is not just a home decoration. Many towns in Italy pride themselves on the presepe that they create for public display, some towns even re-enacting a presepe vivente, or living presepe, with actual people.
This year at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York there is a presepe on display made by Franco Artese, an artist from my home region of Basilicata. It is intended to showcase the artistic heritage of Basilicata and exposes themes of religion, tradition and human solidarity. It will be on display throughout the month of December and is well worth a trip to St. Patrick’s during the busy holiday season to check it out.
For me the presepe is at the center of my childhood holiday memories. My nonni used to build an entire elaborate scene, with hills and ravines and trails dotted with characters and animals, a night sky where they would hang the Star of Bethlehem, all meant to highlight the manger with baby Jesus. To this day I still put on display my own miniature version of the presepe, my way of keeping alive the tradition passed down to me by them. And isn’t that, after all, what traditions are all about?