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.
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.
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.
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).
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 Rome, Venice 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, Rome, Venice, Cinque 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.