A Passion for Presepe

December 13, 2010 / Local Interest
Sant'Agata de Goti, Campania

It’s that time of year again and we’ve already started the countdown towards Christmas. In America, there are advent calendars and people sing the Twelve Days of Christmas.

In Italy, in cities all around the country, families are foraging through stuffy closets, garages and cellars. They are looking for certain old boxes wrapped with tape and string; once found they carefully place them on the living room floor. Now the ritual of Christmas can finally begin to unfold. Fathers untie the string from around the boxes and gently open the lids to reveal a chaos of cotton. They search delicately with their hands among the various tree decorations until they find what they’re really looking for: the heirloom figurines to be placed in the nativity scenes called presepe. Children watch, anxiously transfixed as each one is unwrapped and dusted. It seems like the reenactment of the adoration of Christ once removed.

In Campania the passion for presepe is taken to the highest of heights. Naples is famous for its Via San Gregorio Armeno, an entire street dedicated to the production of classic and contemporary figurines.

In the tiny town of S. Agata dè Goti my neighbor, zì Giggino, has not been seen for days. Shh! He is putting the finishing touches on his latest presepio.

A diminutive of zio Luigi (Little Uncle Luigi), Zì Giggino is well-known for his nativity scenes. Not happy to simply recreate the manger scene, he recreates the entire town of Bethlehem, designing the scenery, the architecture, the lighting and the plants, all with a maniacal attention to detail.

I never would have known about this had I not found him one summer morning in the garage, surrounded by sheets of cork and bits of wood. He showed me buckets of tiny plastic animals and electrical circuits, bottles of paint and shelves of colored paper that he collects all year round. I asked if he would let me see his next creation in December and then promptly forgot all about it.

But yesterday I thought I heard the squeal of zampognari somewhere inside the building. That’s odd, I thought, what are they doing here? Then I heard a knock on the door and Zì Giggino beckoned me to follow him upstairs. There was his latest masterpiece, being launched into the spirit of Christmas by two friends playing their strident bagpipes!

Barbara Goldfield

by Barbara Goldfield

Owner of “Savour The Sannio”, www.savourthesannio.com, a travel consultancy for central and southern Italy.

15 Responses to “A Passion for Presepe”

  1. Dick Smith

    Thanks for sharing with us. It is always nice to take a walk down memory lane at this time of year and your article brings back so many memories.

  2. Anne Robichaud

    Thanks, Barbara and what nostalgia for the zampognari: first heard them play at the top of the scalinata leading to the Campidoglio, Christmas Eve in 1968 – jr abroad in Rome.
    Not really part of the Assisi area Christmas scene: the “living manger scenes” are the Umbrian celebration. The beauty of Italy is this extraordinary diversity region-to-region (if not town-to-town!) of traditions, vero?

  3. Rosemary

    Not only Umbria, but also in Sicily. Although they do both! The ceramica town of Caltigarone has presepe all over the town.

  4. This is just the type of story, the sharing of current activities and historical activities, that keeps me reading the Italian Notebook. Thank you for sharing this lovely peek into real Italian life.

  5. How beautiful! These people embrace their Christianity and that is so wonderful. I wish I could visit Italy at Christmas time!

  6. Peter Pane

    As a youngster in the 1930s and 40s the excitement and anticipation I felt as Christmas approached was greatly enhanced by my knowing that my father’s plans for the annual presepe would soon spring into action. Furniture located in a corner of the parlor had to be moved and then the first stage, the construction of the raised rectangular platform upon which Bethlehem would be recreated could begin. Given that he did not arrive home from work until after 6pm, the work usually took three or four nights. In the end, what emerged through the miracle of papier mache,paint, tree bark, miniature shrubs, stones, greenery and the ‘pastore’ figurines surrounding the manger, was the presepe, It was always a delight to behold, though, with time, I realized that instead of Bethlehem, the town he created every year, with its mountains and lush valleys resembled his native village- Scigliano, Calabria, where today and for some years past, the ‘presepe vivente’ is featured.
    may be enjoyed.

  7. Vincent Piraro

    It’s wonderful to see Italian and American homes celebrating alike in many ways. My sister Theresa also recreates the nativity and will love seeing this story..Thanks much and Merry Christmas.!

  8. Beautiful! I Can’t wait until December 2011 – I will be in Rome, Umbria & Tuscany. Thank you so much for your wonderful Italian Notebook. I look forward to my email every day. Bellissimo.
    Grazie, from Australia.

  9. I used to live in S’Agata many years ago. It was a quiet little place then. I have been back since a few times and it is now a busy, thriving town. I now have a house in Bagni di Lucca. The lovely Marco used to put up a presepe every year until one Christmas somebody took the baby Jesus and left a sign in the manger – Torno subito. Baby Jesus was eventually replaced, but Marco didn’t see the humour.


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