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  • Find Faith in Italian Nativity Scenes
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    All I want for Christmas this year is a little hope -- hope that I'm finally going to be strong enough to become the capable, confident, pretty woman I feel lives just beneath my surface, that my relatives in the United States and abroad are loved and content, that the world is getting safer. I know this is a tall order for Babbo Natale -- and even the mightier, edgier La Befana (the Christmas witch who delivers presents for January 6, l'Epifania).

    Clearly, I need something to believe in, and I'm missing the holiday season in Italy, which is as much a celebration of hope as it is Jesus' birthday. And just what is the ultimate symbol of Italy's bright-eyed optimism at this time of year? The presepio or nativity scene. Others have their Christmas trees, but nothing compares to the masterpiece crèches for which Italians are famous. But you might be wondering, "How can such objects inspire hope?"

    For starters, building the nativity scene is an enduring tradition and one that has been passed down for generations in Italy. The practice first became popular thanks to Saint Francis who in 1223 set up a live presepio, replete with animals, and practiced Mass in a Greccio cave on Christmas Eve. Townspeople credited the event with subsequent miracles, and others across Italy started building their own presepi, some with real-life people and some with statues - or so the story goes. (Live nativity scenes still exist in today's Italy.)

    Each city has put its stamp on the art - from the Sicilian bambinai to Puglia's focheggiatura. The Napoletani, however, were the ones to expand the presepio -- creating scenes that ventured beyond the Holy Family and the three Wise Men. These presepi are depictions of entire towns, sometimes fantastical, sometimes completely abstract.

    On the Napoletano island of Ischia, during Christmases past, I have traveled from presepio to presepio -- noting the brilliant lights on one, the handmade ceramic manger in another, the interesting hand-painted figurines in another. Some took up entire rooms in a church or private home. Some included music -- "Tu scendi dalle stelle!" No two were alike.

    Even the most elementary ones built by children offered something special -- perfectly crumpled pieces of grocery bag-thick brown paper to serve as a chain of mountains, a train that chugs through an imaginary town and leads up to the manger, a sky full of heirloom angel ornaments dangling over the Holy Family. Something so shiny and bright makes me think that there's something shiny and bright in me, in us all.

    Most of the presepi you will find in Italy are rooted in tradition but change from year to year. For example, my papà builds an enormous presepio that sits atop two covered buffet tables in our finished basement. Every year, he uses the same ceramic houses that his nieces and nephews bought for him, figurines he picked up in his travels and a manger and family that were sculpted and painted by my grandmother years ago. But he never sets them up the same way, and he always adds a slew of live plants that obviously change annually.

    Papa puts the manger in the center and his latest interpretation of Italy on one side and that of the United States on the other. Then, he makes up an elaborate story about the two scenes, which he happily shares with everyone who visits during the season. The characters in his work of fiction are based on his collection of figurines - from a shoemaker to a spirited man carrying a jug of wine - and he often uses them to depict members of our extended family, which gets everyone even more excited for the latest installment of Pasquale's storytelling. Every presepio I have ever seen has been a window into the imagination of its creator. The thought that man can come up with something so delightful and unique makes me want to let my own brain wander to see what creations spill out. Hope, indeed.

    All these presepi have one thing in common: each is an homage to Jesus' birth. The word presepio literally means "manger" or "crib," and if you see a presepio before midnight on Christmas Eve, baby Jesus will be missing. His figurine is not placed in the presepio a minute before Christmas Day, his perceived birthday. Unlike Easter when we celebrate the Resurrection that came after Jesus' profound suffering, Christmas is about His beginnings.

    We are marking a time when Jesus' entire life was ahead of him, when he was still innocent and unaware of the hardship he would later face. He is the centerpiece of every presepio and a reminder of our own all-too-brief innocence. In taking in the view of a presepio as a Christian, you can hang onto that one moment when man had everything to look forward to, nothing to regret, completely self-possessed. That, I think, is the purest form of optimism. And that's why Italy is a fountain of hope, even in the dead of winter.


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