Over the weekend, my husband, Baby Boy, and I walked the streets in the town of Ischia Ponte searching for presepi, nativity scenes. These are not your ordinary creches. These are usually made entirely by hand, feature various scenes besides the Holy Family and Wise Men. And each is as unique as the artist (or artists) who create it. Often, they include depictions of life in the neighborhood in which it was made. My father makes one every year that takes up an entire room in his house and includes fountains, live plants, lights, and music. And the ones in Ischia, his home island, where he learned the art of the presepio, bring this tradition to a whole new level. For example, the photo above is of a folk musical troupe that would also build roofs for townspeople in Ischia. They would sing and keep time with the sticks and tools used to flatten the roof. My own grandfather played the clarinet for the group. Many in the group would also dress in costume for ‘Ndrezzata, a traditional folk song and dance that can only be played by those from the town of Buonopane. Nonno was on board for that, too. And those performers, who continue to put on shows today, also made it into this presepio. See below for this and other photos from other presepi around town. Trust me, the pictures don’t do justice to their magnificence.
Some Italians have a Christmas tree, but all Italians have a presepio or nativity scene. Here on the island of Ischia, which is a province of Naples, the nativity scene is elevated to art. Naples’ sculptors create pieces for the presepio that truly are magnificent and unique. And people don’t just put the traditional scene of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus in their presepio. Their presepio features intricate towns, fantasy lands, their favorite soccer players, historical figures, lights, music, live plants, anything you can imagine. My own father creates one every year that features fountains, live plants, grass, hundreds of figurines and ceramic houses, lights, and music and takes up an entire room in his house. (You can check out his 2009 version in a YouTube video.) Each presepio is different and features the signature of the artist who created it.
Well, my presepio this year says that I care about the environment and want to be playful. I also really wanted to create something that was appropriate for my kid (read: not breakable). Those hand-carved Neapolitan statues are gorgeous, but my son would throw them around like they were G.I. Joe figures. So, I settled on using toilet paper tubes, construction paper, the remnants of a bomboniere (a party favor that consisted of a cloth pouch tied with silk ribbons and filled with Jordan almonds), and a gold tray from the local pastry shop (leftover from one of my husband’s macaron runs). Here is the final product:
If I was home in the States, I would have included hay or grass. Here, I had to settle for a green, plastic tablecloth featuring leaves. But I did pick up some gorgeous pine cones in Ischia’s pine tree forests.
All the figures are made of toilet paper tubes that I covered in paper. Jesus is an exception. He’s covered in pieces of one of my son’s old onesies (and his body is half a toilet paper tube, in case you were wondering). His manger is made of part of that pastry shop tray and is sitting atop a plastic ring that once held Scotch tape. That ribbon around Jesus’ blanket is from a gift we received. And Joseph’s head covering is part of that bomboniere, while Mary’s is another piece of onesie.
These three really steal the spotlight because of their bright colors and details. Their sashes are part of that bomboniere again, and their crowns are the rest of the pastry shop tray.
The shepherd’s sash is another ribbon from a gift. The lamb is covered in cotton stuffing that also came in that bomboniere. And I had pipe cleaners leftover from those Halloween spiders I made, which came in handy for that thing the shepherd holds and the legs.
My mom had sent my son craft kits to make foam tree ornaments in the shape of Santa and a reindeer. She also sent that snowflake star, which is supposed to have a picture in it. I opted for some yellow paper because we didn’t have any stars (which many Italian presepio feature) or lights. I put these foam crafts together – with Baby Boy, of course – and attached them either to toilet paper tubes (in the case of Santa and the reindeer) or directly to the kitchen towels covering the top of the presepio (in the case of the snowflake star). That angel, by the way, is made of paper scraps, more ribbon from a box of chocolate we received as a gift, and an old doll’s braided hair. I’m pretty proud of myself, and I’ve been enjoying taking in my work every morning as I get my clothes out of that dresser. Baby Boy is constantly trying to rearrange the pieces. No worries, the worst that can happen is he’ll get a paper cut.