Impressions of Rome: Presepi

In mid to late November around the city of Rome, and presumably in many other places in Italy, Christmas decorations begin to appear. These include the usual strings of colorful electric lights, often strung between buildings along city streets, as well as greenery and Christmas trees. Many store windows include Christmas decorations too, of course.

Less visible, but nonetheless everywhere, are presepi, that is, Christmas cribs or Nativity scenes, lovingly displayed in nearly all the churches open to the public. The word in the singular form is “presepio,” and the plural form is “presepi.”

Italians have been famous for centuries as makers of ornate and beautiful presepi, and the people of Naples are especially known as expert carvers and painters of the statues and animals used for presepi. Large and small, the figures are sold by the dozens and some people become collectors of presepi. There are also wooden “stables” of various shapes, sizes and costs, in which to display the Holy Family figures, shepherds, sheep, etc., in traditional Nativity scenes.

Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican always has a life-size presepio on display each year in December and January, and next to it is a tall Christmas tree. While the actual construction of the “Bethlehem stable” in Saint Peter’s Square is taking place in late November, the work is carefully hidden behind high temporary walls, presumably to surprise the public when the display is finished and ready to be seen. Hammering and sawing can be heard outside the work space, but there is no way of knowing exactly how a particular year’s presepio will look.

The pine tree in Saint Peter’s Square this Christmas is from Poland, trucked to the Vatican in mid-November. The Nativity figures for the presepio this year were made in Naples, a gift to the Vatican by the Benedictine Abbey of Montevergine in Italy. The Christmas display will be in place in Saint Peter’s Square at least until the feast of the Epiphany in January. For Italian Catholics, Epiphany is on a par with Christmas.

Tradition holds that Saint Francis of Assisi was the first to make a formal representation of the Holy Family in the Bethlehem stable, and the place of the display was Greccio, a small town midway between Assisi and Rome, near Rieti. A Franciscan hermitage was there and during a December visit in 1223, Francis desired to celebrate Christmas in a way that would awaken love and admiration of the Christ Child, especially in those who might be weak in their faith. Francis even sought and obtained permission from the pope to do this, so as not to ruffle any feathers.

A small manger or crib was arranged in the woods near the Greccio hermitage, with a live ox and donkey near the statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and shepherds. Midnight Mass of Christmas was celebrated nearby. It seems to have been a noteworthy event, recorded by Saint Francis’ first followers and biographers, including the Franciscans Saint Bonaventure and Thomas of Celano.

Since 1223 devotion to the Christmas crib has spread to much of the Christian world, including Italy to this day. One of the most impressive examples is the presepio on display year round in the Church of Saints Cosmos and Damian in Rome, between Piazza Venezia and the Coliseum, on the Via dei Fori Imperiale, not far from our Sant’Ambrogio curia.

This Nativity scene, at the Franciscan-run church, is in a room apart from the church proper, with the figures that were made in Naples. The presepio contains hundreds of figures, humans and animals, life-like homes, street scenes and a skyline. It is hard to describe and has to be seen to be believed. I love to take guests there and watch their admiration on viewing this impressive precepio at the church of San Cosmo e Damiano.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a similar Neapolitan presepio on display at Christmastime, and also the Benedictine nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, have one, kept on permanent display, fittingly enough, in a former barn. If a visit to Rome is not possible, perhaps New York or Connecticut is.

At our curia of Saint’Ambrogio, one of the Italian monks has been creating small but impressive presepi, one to place in our chapel and some to give as gifts. He is not a carver, but has a knack for finding figurines and stables at the famous Porta Portese flea market, for example, and arranging beautiful representations of the Nativity scene.

A popular custom in Rome during Advent and especially on Christmas day, is to go on foot from church to church (remember there are some nine-hundred churches in the city, so one can only see so many!), and enjoy the presepi on display. The air is usually brisk or cold at Christmas time, but this doesn’t discourage the faithful and simply curious from seeing the variety and styles of presepi in the city’s churches.

One presepio I especially like to see at Christmas is in the tiny church of “Santa Barbara dei Librari,” quite near us, and on the way to Campo de’ Fiori. The Santa Barbara presepi incorporates a three-foot tall replica of the façade and small piazza just outside the church. The charm of this particular Nativity display is memorable.

As an aside, the name of the church of Saint Barbara, with the word “Librari” attached, refers to the lay group, called a “confraternity,” to whom the church was entrusted from 1600 to 1878. The confraternity was comprised of local bookmakers (bookbinders, publishers and scribes), or “Librari.” The church was eventually abandoned and deconsecrated, but happily restored and in use since 1982.

The commercialization of Christmas is certainly evident in Rome, but fortunately there are still many visible reminders of the “reason for the season.” To experience some of the genuine expressions of Christmas, one must usually step into a church or visit Saint Peter’s Square. I presume nearly everyone who comes to Rome does one or both of these.

I recently saw a clever five-panel cartoon in the daily Italian Catholic newspaper, “L’Avvenire.” In it two of his disciples are telling Jesus that people are preparing for his birthday by putting up lights and other decorations. Jesus replies, “Rather than putting these up in my honor, they are enticing people to shop and buy. The word of the day is: buy, buy, buy. It’s all about the expansion of commerce.” In the last panel of the cartoon, one disciple looks at the other and whispers, “Maybe it would be better not to give him gifts this year.”

The point is well taken: what is Christmas all about? The answer is personal, but hopefully about rejoicing in the great gift from God, salvation in Jesus Christ!