The Italian Christmas Crib, ‘Il presepe’ or’ Il presepio’, is perhaps the deepest core of Italy. The Christmas crib is not just a representation of the Sacred Holy Family. It is also the beating centre of Italy itself – the secular family. The earthly family with all its irrevocable ties, with its loves and hates, with its harmonies and dissents, with its solidarities and its jealousies looks towards the Holy Family as an ideal of life itself.
The Holy Family is thus an almost platonic paradigm of what a family aspires to, and all too often fails, to achieve. That’s why also same-sex unions with its concomitants of adoptions, artificial insemination etc. is so difficult to accept in contemporary Italy. For Roman Catholicism, which celebrates the family through its Holy representation in the crib, is not just a religion, the predominant one (the official state religion until quite recently). It is also a cultural facet, a way of thinking in Italy – just like Tantric Buddhism is in Tibet, or Islam in so many other countries.
Fortunately, there is a clear separation between state and religion in Italy – sculpted in the Lateran pacts of 1929 and in the Italian constitution of 1946. It is hard, however, to separate the devotion paid to making cribs and the adoration that the majority of Italians pay to their often divisive and litigational family members.
Moreover, the family is the backbone of the Italian economy. Like father, like son, Italy has the largest number of ‘piccole imprese’ – small businesses – of any other country in Europe. The centre of these industries is the family. If your father is a blacksmith it’s most likely your first job will be heating the forge. If your father is a doctor then it’s most probable you’ll finish up in the medical profession.
Location is so important too. While mum and dad are out at work, the kids are entrusted to the vast unpaid voluntary social work force of grand dads and grand mums. It’s so important to be close to each other for, though you might have even somewhat deep differences, every quarrel is forgotten when it comes to caring for children. They are the little gods in this country.
That’s the true significance of the Italian crib which was first famously thought up by Saint Francis of Assisi at Greccio (a little town near Rieti, Lazio) when in 1223, he created the first living depiction of the Nativity. Thomas of Celano, chronicler of St Francis’ life, briefly describes the scene: “There’s the manger. Bring some hay, lead in the ox and the ass. We honour thereby simplicity: poverty is exalted, humility is praised and Greccio becomes almost a new Bethlehem”.
You could spend the entire Christmas season following presepe trails and you wouldn’t even cover a fraction of them. Here are just a few leaflets covering our part of Tuscany:
(PS The angel is by Leonardo Da Vinci himself and is in the church at San Gennaro in the Lucchesia)
Yesterday, for example, we saw a sign saying ‘presepe’ just at the turnoff to Gioviano where there is an excellent restaurant called ‘Il Cappuccetto Rosso’ (Little Red Riding Hood), a favourite of fellow blogger Debra Kolkka and described in her post https://bellabagnidilucca.com/2015/06/06/great-food-at-cappuccetto-rosso/ (among several others).
This was the ‘presepe’ which has been there since the last century and is certainly one of the best we’ve seen in our little part of the world. It is simply marvellously enchanting. Like every presepe in every region of Italy, the miracle of the Virgin Birth is surrounded by local craftspeople: from carpenters to shepherds, from olive gatherers to millers, from fishermen to cowherds.
The premonition of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection was particularly moving:
What’s great is that so many of the characters are automated so you can actually ‘see’ people chopping wood, grinding corn, fishing and carving,
The greatest thing, however, is that this wonderful presepe is respected by all. There is no vandalism or stealing of its beauties despite the fact that there is no-one present there all the time to look after it. To do so would be sacrilege, not only against the concept of the Holy family itself but of that ever-pulsating heart of Italy: that energy that propels this wonderful country along through thick and thin – the family which becomes transmuted into the Holy Family through its devotion to its children and through the immense love Italians have for their future generations. That is the true driving force, the spot-on religion of this loving, lovable country.
Here are our comments (and others in the visitors’ book: