Witness the Must-See Neapolitan Nativity Scene or Presepio Right Here

Discover the annual tradition of building an artistic nativity scene that takes people far beyond Bethlehem and the manger

Check out my father’s presepio and his story about it, which changes every year, and better understand this delightful Neapolitan tradition. Video by Francesca Di Meglio with cooperation by Pasquale Di Meglio

In Naples, Italy, some families will have a Christmas tree but all Catholic families will have a presepio or nativity scene. A few will be simple manger scenes typical of what you’d see anywhere during the holidays. But most will be an elaborate artistic expression. They often depict scenes from the nearby towns or show one’s fandom for a figure in popular culture or a sports team.

For as long as I can remember, my father kept up the tradition in our home in the United States. He began with a simple manger scene in my parents’ first year of marriage. As a newborn, I was placed into the scene to depict baby Jesus. The whole family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins, made a trek to our house to see the presepio. It became a holiday tradition.

One year, in her ceramics class, my maternal grandmother made him the nativity statues, replete with the three wise men, Mary, Joseph, and the manger. They are sleek and white and always seemed magical to me. They have a shine to them that screams Christmastime. My grandmother passed away a few years ago, but her statues are still in the presepio every year.

My cousins began buying him houses and special string lights. Relatives from Italy learned of his presepio and began bringing authentic statues from Ischia, the Neapolitan island of my father’s birth and all our ancestors, and Naples, which is next door to Ischia and the birthplace of this kind of presepio.

The History of the Presepio in Naples, Italy

Many believe this art dates back to the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi commissioned the creation of a nativity scene, according to Napoli Unplugged. Today, on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, you will find artists creating these intricate presepio statues made of terracotta or wood. Each one is often the work of more than one artist.

You can usually find depictions of those in the traditional nativity scene but you may also find famous people of the modern era or even characters from your own hometown. For instance, my father has Neapolitan figures of the folk dancers from his birthplace Buonopane, Ischia. They perform ‘Ndrezzata, an ancient folk dance in which his father and brother participated. My husband gave them to my father as a gift, and it’s like his family tradition is alive in the scene.

Each Presepio Tells a Different Story

When you’re in Italy, especially in Naples and its surrounding area, for the holidays, you will take a tour of presepi. Churches and towns have them set up in different places. They take up entire rooms or gardens just like the one my father builds every year. They include music and fountains or running water. Some of them have a recorded story that goes along with the scene. Often, there will also be a live nativity with real people and live animals. Townspeople bring a large baby Jesus statue from house to house as a blessing. The presepio is Christmas in Naples.

Besides telling the story of Jesus’ birth and whatever else the artist wants to share, the presepio is a tribute to God’s creation. A landscaper, my father adds natural elements to the presepio, too. His includes fountains and rocks and live lemon trees. In the past, he has included grass, which is a chore because you have to water it and trim it throughout the season. He usually makes one side represent Italy and the other our home state of New Jersey and adopted state of Florida, specifically Disney World, because my sister lives and works there.

Presepio As Holiday Gift

For the family, the scene is spectacle. But it’s my father’s imagination and the story he creates to go along with the sparkling nativity scene that makes everyone come back every year. He changes the story annually. But he’s also been known to edit it on the spot to include one relative who is in the room over one who has already left. In other words, he plays to his audience.

In 2020, the pandemic meant that the family could not see the scene or hear the story live and in person. So, I decided to share it here with family and friends near and far and the public at large. We all need a little tradition, a little beauty, and a lot of light at this time. I think this presepio and Pasquale Di Meglio are just what the world needs right now. Or at least it is just what I needed this Christmas.

On the morning after Christmas, my mother caught my father standing in front of the presepio with the lights blinking. “I love it,” said Pasquale. “It’s like a museum.”

Indeed, it’s like a museum dedicated to family and faith and the blessings of the season. Happy holidays!

Let us know about your presepio or other traditions you are keeping despite the pandemic in the comments.

Francesca Di Meglio is a veteran reporter who has worked for Bloomberg Businessweek and Ladies’ Home Journal. Visit francescaandantonio.com for her blog.

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