LE FESTE – CELEBRATIONS
For Italians, Christmas is still all about spending time with the family and the birth of Jesus. The gift giving frenzy is nothing like it is in the United States. In fact, most families exchange only with those closest to them. Often, one family will give another a basket of food – a few indulgences and some home baked goods. Little kids get a surprise from Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) on Dec. 25 and a little something from La Befana (the Italian Christmas witch) on Jan. 6, Epifania. Still, make no mistake about it, Christmas is huge in Italy.
While the tree with gifts under it isn’t as big of a deal, you’ll still find them. But they might seem minuscule when compared to the presepio or nativity scene. Many of these scenes, especially in and around Naples, Italy, take up entire rooms, might include lights and music, replicas of villages and traditions, running water and fountains, and live plants. (Whenever I’m in Ischia, which is an island of Naples, for the holidays, I tour the presepi of the island.) Of course, many towns and neighborhoods also host a live presepio with real humans and animals – the ones said to have been in Bethlehem when Jesus was born – in the days leading up to Christmas. And the townspeople go door to door on Christmas with a large baby Jesus statue for everyone to kiss as a blessing.
Even though my father moved to the United States from Ischia in 1960, when he was just 13 years old, he has never forgotten the Italian Christmas celebration. Every year, he builds a presepio that takes up an entire room in our house, features live plants and trees, fountains, music, reminders of both his homes in Ischia and New Jersey and some of our travels, and statues of the nativity that my maternal grandmother made for him in a pottery class many moons ago. Over the years, the presepio has grown along with my father’s imagination and all the pieces that various family members and friends have added to it.
What’s most beautiful about this tradition is how it attracts our relatives like magnets. It’s part of their Christmas journey to come and see how my father has changed it from the year before. It’s always unique. And he offers a hyperbolic tale about who is in the scene and what is happening. When my cousins are over, the family of dogs represents them and they might be on the lookout for Nonno, who is represented by a drunk old man figure that came straight from Naples. The story changes every year and every minute really. It all depends who’s with him at the time.
Now, I’m sure you’re itching to have a nativity scene of your own. Don’t be alarmed. You don’t have to go all out and make an expensive or gigantic presepio. The type As among us are welcome to try. But you can also just make a simple DIY presepio. Have the kids pitch in. My son is a devout presepio maker; he practices all year long and uses his superhero and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurines to create a scene that is truly all his own.
Here’s how to make a presepio:
Find the perfect spot. Determine where in your home you can put your presepio. Before you can plan, you need to know how much space is at your disposal. Remember, you can put a little presepio under your tree or a great big one on your lawn. Don’t feel limited to the mantel or dining room table.
Choose your materials. Gather the figurines, decorative items, and anything else you’d like to give character to your scene. Many Italian Americans I know have Christmas village houses or larger ornaments that fit in nicely. Remember, Italians don’t just necessarily include Jesus’ birth. That’s the centerpiece, but they also feature figurines from popular culture, replicas of their everyday life, such as a statue of someone swigging wine from a bottle or playing Italian cards, and reminders of their work (woodworkers and landscapers), and anything else that their imagination can conjure.
Plot the scene. Think of this as you would a story. Where does each item need to go to share the Christmas story as you see fit? Decide and plan accordingly.
Make the pieces you’re missing. When I was in Italy for the holidays in 2013, my husband and I had little to no Christmas decorations. So, I collected toilet paper tubes and made an entire presepio and even a tree with them. It was glorious. Seriously.
Work within your limits. Even if you have little to no space in your home and few materials, you can still make a presepio. I’m selling a shadow box with a customized paper presepio inside it. The adorable figures are made of card stock and feature details, such as the gem. While I used a Cricut to cut out each figure, you can do it manually. A framed beauty like this is perfect for anyone in a small apartment or tiny house.
Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10. For more handmade crafts and party gear, visit the Italian Mamma store on Etsy.