Presepe, the Italian Christmas Nativity

 

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photo credit Wikimedia Commons

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
photo credit Wikimedia Commons

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
photo credit Wikimedia Commons

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.

Buon Natale, Have a Very Merry Christmas!

Christmas in Tuscany

 

There is an old saying in Italy, ‘Natale con la tua famiglia, Pasqua con chi vuoi,’ which means ‘Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you want.’ Christmas is considered such a special and sacred event that it is traditional to enjoy meals and spend time with your family.

In the hill towns of Tuscany, the streets are decorated with Christmas lights and Nativity Scenes. The window displays are sparkling and dazzling, bursting with color that transport you instantly to a fairytale kingdom.

As with most things in Italy, Christmas here is still old-style and traditional. Even the food has been passed down through the generations, gradually evolving into a traditional menu.

Christmas in Italy involves nearly four full weeks of celebrations.

The Holiday Calendar-

The 8th of December is the official beginning of the holiday season.

The holiday meals include Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the 26th of December, which is Santo Stefano. Then there is a rest of 4 days before everyone is back at the table for the Cenone di Capo d’Anno. This is the New Year’s Eve dinner, which is often based on fish.  This would then be followed by lunch on New Year’s Day.

Epiphany is 5 days later and the last event of the season. This includes the arrival of the Three Wise Men and for Italian children, and the arrival of the Befana, an ugly old witch. The children await her arrival even more than Santa Claus, known as  Babbo Natale. Befana is a bit scary looking with her warts and all, but she keeps the children accountable just like Santa Clause and has treats to distribute. This happens on January 6th, which is the end of the Christmas season.

The Typical Christmas Meal in Italy-

The Christmas table is typically lined with appetizers and nibbles that will often be covered with a special tablecloth hand-made by nonna over a glass of celebratory prosecco. When you toast in Italy, it is very important to clink your glasses and look the other person in the eye. It is tempting to keep your eyes on your drink to ensure that you don’t spill it!

The appetizers could be a combination of hams and salamis, cheeses and local olives. Most often you will find a chicken liver pâté on Tuscan bread called ‘Crostini Toscani.’ Flans are popular as well, filled with the season’s freshest vegetables and perhaps some freshly shaved truffles.

The Joy of Homemade Pasta- the First Course –

For the first dish, primo, hand-made tortellini served in broth called brodo is followed by a second first course of pasta, often with a meat sauce like boar or pigeon, or a lasagna.

The Oven Baked Main Course –

After the pasta, an arrosto, or mixed roast meats flavored with rosemary, sage, and garlic is placed on the table.

It’s hard to believe that chickens were once considered a luxury food. But today,  the roast meat for the holidays almost always includes a free range chicken

Veggies –

There is so much food in the appetizer and main course that vegetables often get ignored when a large meal like this is being planned in Tuscany. This is especially true of the simple green salad, or Insalata Mista, which is usually prepared but forgotten with all the savory dishes on the table. The contorni includes side dishes of vegetables. Roasted potatoes with sage and rosemary are a favorite.

Tuscan Sweets –

Siena has developed some desserts that have remained traditional over the years. These include the Panforte, a compact fruit cake with candied fruit and nuts, as well as the decadent Ricciarelli, a cookie made with almonds and sugar.

Another popular one is the Cavalluccio, a chunky dry cookie with a strong anise flavor mixed with finely chopped dried nuts and candied fruit.

The northern part of Tuscany has the Befannini, a rum flavored sugar cookie which is used as gifts between families, especially around the 6th of January when the Befana, or witch, come to visit.

In Tuscany, desserts are usually served with a glass of home-made Vin Santo, the sweet wine made from dried grapes.

After dinner, it used to be traditional to go to the cinema in the afternoon on Christmas day. Many families enjoy a stroll through the streets, not only to help work off lunch but also to see the spectacular ‘Presepe’, the Nativity scenes. Of course, to wish a ‘Buon Natale’, or Merry Christmas, to friends and neighbors is a high priority.

Usually, there will be Christmas markets or events happening all around to enjoy.

Buon Natale, a Merry Christmas, to each one of you! I hope for a wonderful holiday season and a joyous new year.

 

Residence Le Santucce, From Rubble to Elegance

 

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Fires and bombs nearly destroyed the medieval Convent of the Santucce nuns…

As I gazed up in awe, I couldn’t help but wonder how many intriguing lives and captivating legends were contained within these massive walls. The carefully restored 13th-century convent rose high above us toward the cloudless blue sky. Residence Le Santucce was a stately presence among the surrounding Tuscan hills in the town of Castiglion Fiorentino Read more

Hear the Church Bells of Rapallo in Liguria

A month ago my husband and I were in the seaside town of Rapallo. We enjoyed a late afternoon stroll through the cool October streets when the bells of the church began to ring. The melody was charming. We stopped on the sidewalk to listen as the townspeople continue on their way. They knew the serenade of the bells. But for us, it was enchanting.

Enjoy this short ringing of the bells video taken with my iPhone.

 

Il Poderaccio, a Tuscan Agriturismo with a View

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The panoramic views of the Tuscan hills drenched in golden sunlight greeted us as we passed through the iron gate and down the long driveway of La Fattoria Il Poderaccio. Horses, long-legged and sleek, grazed in the pasture as two young foals frolicked nearby. One of the farm dogs greeted us with friendly eyes and wagging tail. We parked our car and inhaled the views once more before we met Lisa Ravà, our host.

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The classic country architecture of the old stone buildings, some covered with flowering Bougainville, dates back to the 13th century. Read more

A Magical Autumn Supper at a Working Farm in Tuscany…Il Poderaccio

What transforms a simple social event into a cherished memory?

Let me begin…

Everything served that evening was delicious, but the authenticity that happened in a small Tuscan kitchen was what I will remember the most. The conversation went on for hours, each one sharing their own story. I cherished every moment….we could be in a fancy downtown restaurant but I far preferred this experience. I left that evening feeling richer and more enlightened than I could have imagined I would be. I find it’s the small touches… the simple yet delicious home-made dinner prepared with love, the smiles and laughter over good wine, and the embraces as we head for home. It’s an experience with down-home Italians, doing what they normally do. It was an honor to be a part of their lives, if only for a few hours…

Feeding the Horses at Il Poderaccio Agriturismo in Siena…video

I just got back from an amazing 2-week trip to Italy. Part of that time I had the pleasure of staying at Lisa Ravà’s panoramic agriturismo, Il Poderaccio. She invited me to meet with her early in the morning to feed the horses (all 15 of them). I came, but she did all the work while I chatted and observed.

You will not believe the beauty of this early Tuscan morning…..take a look!

 

Meet Sandra Giusti, Arezzo’s Gracious Ambassador

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Arezzo greeted us with blue sky and sunshine on a recent October afternoon as we pulled into the parking lot next to the medieval wall that still encircled the town. Across the street, I saw a tall, elegant young woman with long dark hair who I guessed was Sandra Giusti, our tour guide. Her company, Arezzo Guide, was born from her great passion and love for her hometown and surrounding villages. We had corresponded previously only by email up until now so this was our first meeting. I was excited to meet her and discover what made Arezzo one of the most popular places in Tuscany to experience. Read more

‘Italy Once More’ Brings New Friendships, Hotels, and Adventures

 

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Photo was taken from Taormina, Sicily

Once more, I am filled to capacity with the most amazing experiences gathered in these last two weeks during my trip to Italy. Is it still bella Italia after all this time? Oh yes, in more ways than I could ever have imagined. This trip introduced me to a deeper understanding of the different amenities of both the north and south. Each is quite different from the other. But all together, they blend into a country that is richly diverse, resulting in a culture thousands of years in the making. People who, for the most part, are warm and hospitable, who care deeply for their land, and who live out their daily lives with dignity.

I’ve had the good fortune to stay at three different accommodations, each one quite distinct from the other. In comparison, they proved to be equally delightful. The proprietors who operate/own them are as wonderful as the amenities they have to offer. I am excited to share each one with you and plan to introduce them over the next few months. I feel strongly that each one deserves its own spotlight.

I hope that you will check back and discover what I have… that there are beauty, warmth, and possibilities beyond your expectations. Come and meet the people who offer an authentic Italian experience. Find out what makes their hotels, agriturismos, and accommodations so unique. I am inspired to share each one with you.

A Visit to the Villa of San Michele on the Island of Capri

Capri, Cefalu, Orvietto, Florence, Genoa, Bolsena, Lecci, Napoli 091

The island of Capri is alluring and capable of enchanting anyone who comes for a visit. One look at the rugged cliff walls and rock formations will convince you that Homer’s sirens do exist and still sing their seductive songsWe learn from Homer’s mythical book, “The Odyssey,” that it was brave Odysseus himself who ordered his crew to stop their ears with wax as they passed. He had himself tied to a mast with strict orders that no one release him regardless of how much he begged. As a result, they were able to escape the siren’s wail and shipwreck on the calamitous rocks.

High above the sea stands the Villa of San Michele in Anacapri. A long and winding road leads upward into the clouds where you will find the white villa, magical and unique in its ancient setting. Read more

Bringing Italy Home in a Sketchbook

 

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Trullo house sketch from Kerry’s trip in 2010

One of the biggest joys of writing for my blog is meeting others who love to share their stories and experiences in Italy. It provides me with a unique perspective that is truly a joy to read and enlarges my world of knowledge. I am always delighted to hear from my readers and continue to learn so much from them.

Recently, I received a comment from an English gentleman named Kerry Harris. He mentioned how much he enjoyed his visit to Alberobello, Puglia, to see and sketch the Trulli houses. He offered to email me some of his sketches, and as you probably guessed, I jumped at the chance to see them. Read more

What to Do on a Rainy Day in Italy

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Portovenere

We’ve mostly all been there….we wake up in a cozy hotel room with thoughts of getting dressed and meeting the day in an Italian city or village when we are met at the door with a gray drizzle. People outside rush about under umbrellas or towards the nearest overhang to stay dry. Passing cars splash through puddles already beginning to form.  You begin to feel a dampness creep up on you. This was not the kind of day you had envisioned, and your heart begins to sink. Read more