Great Italian Christmas Traditions: Il Presepio

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The Presepio of Rome's must-visit Pantheon (church of Santa Maria dei Martiri)

In many parts of Italy, particularly in the south, you will not find a Christmas tree as the symbol of Christmas, but rather a ‘Presepio’ – a nativity scene.

One of our wonderful Rome tour guides, Chris, who has a PhD in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Angelicum University, Rome, writes, ‘Originating centuries ago in Rome, extant documentation places the earliest evidence of commemorating the Christmas story in this manner to 432 A.D., when Pope Sixtus III reconstructed a “cave of the Nativity” similar to the Bethlehem stable in the ancient Liberian Basilica (founded by Pope Liberius (352-366) and known today as the papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore).  A festive celebration was then introduced to commemorate the occasion of the “Infant Savior’s birth.” This devotional reconstruction resulted in what can be termed the building of the world’s first Presepio.’

However, it has also been said that St Francis of Assisi is responsible for the wonderful Italian Christmas tradition.

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Florence's city centre Presepio near Florence's Duomo (Cathedral) in the historic city centre

Chris states, ‘In 1223 Saint Francis of Assisi commissioned Giovanni Vellita from the town of Greccio to build a large-scale manger scene for the faithful to venerate on the anniversary of the Christ’s birth.  Vellita therefore constructed a three-dimensional nativity scene out of straw in a cave of Greccio and Saint Francis had Christmas Mass celebrated there that year.  According to the various accounts, Francis also used real people and living animals to illustrate the revered event.’

St Francis of Assisi is known for being a nature lover who lived a very poor and simple life.

From St Francis’ simple and naturalistic construction honouring the baby Jesus’ humble birthplace, nativity scenes became grew to be very much fashionable and ever more ornate over time.

Florence's city centre Presepio, Christmas Tree and Florence's Duomo (Cathedral) in the historic city centre

Today, the Christmas traditional of erecting a nativity scene has spread throughout all of Italy although the scenery has returned to a more biblically accurate depiction without too much finery.

In the afternoons leading up to Christmas, locals will often take an afternoon ‘passeggiata’ (stroll) through the streets to see their local Presepio.

Many flock to the Vatican where each year, as Christ states, ‘the Vatican constructs two nativity scenes for the Christmas season. The first is assembled inside the basilica of Saint Peter at the chapel of the Presentation, and the second is built in the Piazza di San Pietro in front of the obelisk.’

In Rome, the city highlights in terms of nativity scenes can be found by heading to the Spanish Steps, Scala Sancta Church, church of the Gesù and Santa Maria, Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) on the Esquiline Hill, the Roman Forum’s basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian and the basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill.

As to Florence, the Duomo has embraced both the Presepio and Christmas tree traditions, being place side-by-side right next to the ornate face of Florence’s cathedral. A must-see sight in Florence at any time of year, at Christmas time it has an extra touch of magic*!

Beyond, the cobbled streets are hung with beautiful Christmas lights, and all the shop windows are decorated and filled with great traditional gifts … and a few wonderful fashion items too being that Florence is one of the best shopping cities around!

The church of Santa Maria Novella (just across from Florence’s central train station, Firenze Santa Maria Novella) also has a charming Presepio to visit in Florence.

The Presepio of Florence's Santa Maria Novella church

It is lovely to wander out into the streets to look at the magnificent decorations that adorn the city streets, taking time to appreciate the beauty, the history and the traditions of the ‘Bel Paese’ at this most special time of year.

To explore Florence’s city centre, we have a great Florence tour discount tour package, Florence in One Glorious Day (or 2).

Comprising the skip-the-line Uffizi Gallery tour with expert guide, our The Masterpieces of The Masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery Tour, and our skip-the-line Accademia visit –The Original David Tour.You also have our acclaimed Original Florence Walk small-group guided walking tour in Florence’s historic city centre.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but you can certainly explore its highlights in less than that with our expert guide! For Rome, we have the discounted Rome tour package, Rome in One Glorious Day (or two).

This discounted Rome tour package includes a 3.5 hour small-group walking tour of Rome and a tour offering skip-the-line Vatican entry and expertly guided tour of the Vatican.

If you would like to have a private guide accompanying you, we have private tours that cater to your every desire. From Florence (and Tuscany) to RomeVenice to the Cinque Terre and beyond, we are at your beck and call.

To explore other areas of Italy, can check out our Artviva Walking Tours website to read more about the tours we have to offer in Florence, RomeVeniceCinque Terre, Umbria, Naples, Pompeii and more.

* It must be owing to the three wise men, in Italian known as the ‘Magi’ – the plural for ‘mago’ which translates to magician.

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  1. Rome to Fiumicino airport is easy go to the main train tosaitn (Termini) and simply buy a ticket using the automated ticket service. There are tosaitns all over the place, and you can opt for an english language version. You’ll just tell it you want a one-way ticket to Fiumicino and then insert Euros or your credit card it’s about 12 euros, I believe? You can also get a taxi from your hotel to the airport, but the drivers spot a trusting American tourist a mile away they’ll typically way overcharge you. If you’re staying at a major hotel, like the Holiday Inn, they may have their own airport shuttle I think this is rarer with the hotels that are in the city proper, though (Fiumicino is about 12-20 km out of the center).Make sure you bring a pocket-sized Italian phrasebook it’s absolutely essential if you don’t know any Italian! Also, buy a travel guide (one each for Rome and for Venice will be a good idea, as you’ll get a more detailed idea of what is in each city than you would with another generalized Italy book), and you can tailor your visit to your own interests.If you have an interest in the ancient city (I’m an archaeologist, so I’m biased!), I highly recommend the Forum & Colosseum, and the Capitoline Museum (which has an *amazing* ancient collection, and also a very nice Renaissance section). The Vatican also has an immense art collection spanning the centuries. The Pantheon is also really beautiful, and is free it’s an easy walk from most spots in the city, and can be a really quick stop-off. Rome is my favorite place in the world enjoy it

    1. Ciao! Thanks for your comment. The taxis from the airport to the centre (and vice versa) have a set fee, which is written on a sign displayed inside the taxi so you can be sure you won’t be ripped off.

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