Presepe Vivente, Still Alive

December 23, 2014 / Events
Umbria and Lazio

The crib scene comes alive – literally – in the mountain villages surrounding Assisi. After all, San Francesco was the first to create a presepe vivente (living manger scene): in 1223, three years before his death, he decided to bring the Christmas story to life for the peasants of Greccio (northern Lazio).

(Greccio’s monastery in these photos.)



His biographer records, “he recounted the poor King’s birth with tender compassion,” in front of a straw-filled crib, flanked by ox and ass.

This first “living manger scene,” was immortalized by Giotto nearly a century later in the “Greccio crib scene” in the fresco cycle of the Saint’s life in Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco.


And the “living crèche” still lives: in tiny hilltop Umbrian medieval villages, the locals bring alive the first Christmas on December 24, 25 and 26 – and on Jan 6th (when the Kings arrive to adore the Christ Child).

In bellissimo torchlit medieval ambiances, the mountain villages become Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, all aspects of village life re-enacted.

Vendors – flanked by young apprentices – shout their wares at market stalls and innkeepers roast meats at open fires. As you wander the presepe vivente, you can stop in at the carpenter’s workshop, the baker’s oven, the potter’s kiln, then watch the weaver at the loom and the blacksmiths forging.

Main highlight – logicamente! – is the stall where an ox and an ass backdrop Mary and Joseph tenderly caring for the Baby Jesus (most recently-born child in the village).

Late on December 24th, young shepherds carrying lambs on their shoulders kneel to in homage to the Christ Child. The Three Kings, in splendid bejeweled robes, will solemnly kneel before the Crib on January 6th.

Years ago, we all headed up to the presepe vivente of Armenzano one freezing cold winter night. After botteghe (workshops) visits, we stopped at the inn to warm up. Hot mulled wine served by local village women in Biblical dress did the trick.

And then a trek up the crumbling stone steps to Armenzano’s ruined castle tower to Herod’s court. Bearded and commanding Herod was surrounded by voluptuous courtesans: two knelt at his feet, caressing his legs as another kept his golden goblet replenished with wine. He startled his courtesans – and all of us! – when he leapt out of his throne, threw back his ruby–colored velvet mantle and launched into a furious tirade about his hated rival, the new King.

“Look!”, exclaimed our Keegan (ten at the time), “That’s Maestro Guerrino, our gym teacher!”

Maestro Guerrino was a mediocre gym teacher but he was a star King Herod. After all, isn’t almost every Italian a natural actor?

Anne Robichaud

by Anne Robichaud

An authorized Umbrian tour guide, Anne and her husband Pino worked the land for many years in the 1970’s so rural life, rural people, rural cuisine are una passione for her. See Umbria from “the inside”: join her May 2017 ten-day tour centered on discovering Umbria, Anne’s Umbria.

See for more on her Umbria tours. Do see for news on the Assisi apartment – and Assisi countryside guest house – she and Pino now rent out.

Anne writes frequently on Umbria and other areas of Italy. Read about her annual U.S. Feb/Mar cooking classes and lectures, as well as her numerous Italy insights on her blog.

19 Responses to “Presepe Vivente, Still Alive”

  1. Anne Ladky

    Another wonderful note, Anne! I love that Italians care about preserving these traditions.

  2. Katie Larsh

    Thank you, Annie, for this peek into the timeless sharing of the Christmas story in your beautiful Umbria! Love the personal family note too! Wishing you and all your family a very Happy Christmas!

  3. Rosemary Johnson

    What a beautiful tradition! Love the musical accompaniment–thanks so much for sharing this. I am reading it on Christmas Day as we prepare to go to Church. Happiest of New Years to you and your family!! No snow yet in Chicago!

  4. Ann Krapf

    Anne, thank you for your wonderful descriptions. We hope to spend Christmas is Assisi one year. Buon Natale to you, Pino and your family

  5. Lynn Cowhig

    Beautiful article Anne, your writing makes me feel as if there, and I sure wish I could be. Another wonderful event that would be marvelous to attend in Italy. Hope you, and family, had a blessed Christmas.

  6. I love the tradition and how the people come together for such beautiful celebrations all throughout the year! So amazing to see, especially in person, but through your articles is the next best option! You bring it to life.

  7. Mark & Kathleen Lomazzo

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful Christmas custom with us, made all the more special with the beautiful music of Pachelbel’s Cannon in D. Last Christmas we visited the Museum of Metropolitan Art (MOMA) in NY City to view the spectacular annual Christmas tree and Neapolitan Baroque Creche: vivid 18th century Neapolitan Nativity scene- a favorite of New Yorkers and visitors from around the world.

    Vi auguriamo un Natale pieno do amore, pace e felicita, e un felice anno nuovo.

    Con I migliori uguri,

  8. Anne Shuyler

    I loved it. It made me want to come for Christmas so I could see them.

  9. karen Kotoske

    If only we could be seeing a Presepe Vivente with you as our tour guide in two days hence, Jan 6! That would be a most delightful way to start this new year. It will be wonderful to see you in San Francisco in February ( a happy alternative.) We’ve had many guides in Europe and you are at the top of the list of the good ones. Happy New Year Anne and Pino!

  10. Louise Montalbanoaaa

    Anne, thank you for this wonderful article. Another example of how you portray to us the traditions that are kept alive in Italy. We are so looking forward to our year in Italy and experiencing events like this that will bring out the true life in Italy. We print the articles from Italian Notebook that are places and events we have read about And want to experience. They go in a binder either by location or by calendar month (for the events). We will be sure not to miss something so special as the “Precepe Vivente” next year. At this rate we will have to stay more than one year to see and experience all that we have in our binder. Isn’t Italy Great? Happy New Year to you, Pino And the family.

  11. Tom & Cissy Wilson

    Excellent summary of a wonderful tradition, Anne. Thanks for your sparkling narrative & pictures.

  12. Jenny Hannan

    Fabulous article Annie – only in Italy and only in the depth of winter can one expect the full township to come out to re-enact the nativity. Amazing stuff, and obviously galvanising for the whole town… I had no idea that this tradition started with S.Francesco! Loved your comment about the gym teacher making a star King Herod. Felice 2015 ed un forte abbraccio

  13. Susan Joan

    Beautiful traditions. Your articles are wonderful and thank you for sharing them. A very happy and peaceful New Year to you and your family. Here’s to celebrating Christmas in Italy for all of us!

  14. Stephanie Webb

    Another wonderful recounting of Italian tradition. Every time I read your blog posts I have to add another festival/town to my bucket list. I loved Keegan’s exclamation! Made me laugh out loud!


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