Every year, Abruzzo celebrates Christmas with nativity scenes. Miniature and made by local artisans, or live scenes played by children and adults, they are joyous events with a strong community spirit.

Just as the Christmas tree is such a symbol of the festive season in many countries, the presepe, or nativity scene, is as much, if not more the Italian equivalent. At Christmastime, model nativity scenes of all shapes and sizes — from the elegantly simple to the incredibly elaborate — adorn corners of houses and piazzas across the country. Just as all the Christmas story figures that are handed down, presepe are also handed down and added to through generations of Italian families.

Old tradition

The tradition of nativity scenes arrived in Abruzzo in 1225 in the church of San Domenico in Penne. Over centuries, presepi entered private houses of local aristocratic families. An inventory from the Castel of Celano drawn up in 1567 mentions one from the noble Piccolomini household. Not too long ago, a beautiful 17th century Presepe was discovered in a crate that used to belong to the rich Antinori family in Lanciano. Nativities from Abruzzo have always been known for depicting humble scenes of daily life, shepherds with their flocks and picturesque mountains.

But nativity scenes are not limited to these intricate miniature creations. One of the most wonderful popular Christmas traditions in Abruzzo — with a long history — is that of the presepe vivente, the living nativity. It has become an important annual event in many areas of Italy and, although we may well be biased, we don’t think anywhere does it quite like the beautifully evocative mountain villages in this region.

Presepe vivente in Rivisondoli

Living nativity

The presepe vivente is celebrated in numerous Abruzzo towns and villages from Christmas Day through January 6th. It is a theatrical spectacle that combines local traditions with the magical atmosphere of Christmas and involves whole communities. People from the respective towns and villages participate as inhabitants of Bethlehem, as well as the obvious characters of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men; in some towns more than 100 people make up the cast of the show. A young baby from the village is also given the honour of playing the role of the baby Jesus, making it a community affair that spans all ages.

Locations throughout each of the borghi that produce a living nativity are chosen to recreate scenes from the Christmas story. Many places have a walking itinerary which, accompanied by the availability of local dishes cooking and traditional craftspeople working, invoke the aromas and sounds of a long-forgotten past throughout the small streets, really bringing the Christmas story to life.  

Almost every village and town has a manger scene at Christmas, and there are more than 20 locations where presepi viventi are staged.

Miniature presepe in Sulmona

If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit one of Abruzzo’s nativities, put it on your To-do list. This tradition that has lasted almost 800 years is not going to go away any time soon!

Continue reading about beautiful presepi in Pacentro, Lanciano, Rivisondoli, Atessa and other towns in the archive issue №8 included in our Winter Bundle here.

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