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.
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.
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.
The living nativity has become one of the most important events in the village’s annual calendar and is considered a folklore tradition in its own right. Pacentro provides the stage for a show embraced by the wider Peligna Valley communities and has grown into an occasion that brings in tourists from all over. Pacentro’s recreation of the nativity scene also incorporates elements of the local farming tradition. Bringing life back into the heart of the historic centre, there are a series of performances that sit side-by-side with the living nativity The food stands offer local cakes, pizzas, gnocchi, chestnuts and more, flooding the streets with delicious aromas as visitors walk the itinerary that leads eventually to the cave and the culminating Christmas scene of Jesus in the manger. Cantinas and ateliers offer places to stop along the route and browse local crafts. For updates, see the organisers’ Facebook page.
Since 1951, the town of Rivisondoli organises a live nativity scene in the evening of January 5. The local tradition of presepe vivente was started 70 years ago by a local priest who wanted to lift the spirits of the town ravaged by World War II. The nativity scene was set up inside a ruin of a bombed building and the part of the angel was played by a local girl who miraculously survived the Nazis’ massacre of the civilians in Rivisondoli. Every year, about 100 people are involved in bringing Biblical scenes to life and the roles are assigned months before the event. Baby Jesus is always represented by the town’s last newborn. Last year, a famous Italian theatre director was invited to revise the scenography of the manger scene to make sure it was more magical than ever. Rivisondoli gets snow often, which makes the event truly special. It attracts big crowds and the atmosphere is very festive. For more details, see the town’s tourism Facebook page and a beautiful photo gallery on this website.
Civitella Alfedena looks like a fairy tale town in winter. Add Christmas lights, some snow and a nativity scene, and it becomes pure magic. For one month, starting the first week of December, life-size papier-mâché figures of bakers, blacksmiths, butchers, cobblers going on about their business are set up in courtyards, wine cellars, narrow alleyways and small squares in the historic centre of the town. Around any corner you might bump into a shepherd carrying a basket of hay, a donkey, or an old lady spinning wool. At the end of the itinerary, at the top of the town, you will find the manger with Baby Jesus cosily nestled in a natural grotto. The scenes are lit up from 5pm to 11pm. The dates are announced on the local tourism office page. Watch this lovely video to get an idea of what to expect.
If you’re missing Christmas festivities this year, here’s a great option: the artisanal nativities exhibition in Atessa, which is open all year around. The 400-square-metre museum-like space is filled with dozens of miniature presepi made by local masters and divided in three themes: Atessa in miniature, the life of Jesus and scenic nativities. The city scenes meticulously reproduce the streets of Atessa, with historic and traditional costumes which were studied from old photos and documents. It feels almost like an ethnographic museum that gives a glimpse of the city’s past. You can also see 23 scenes from the life of Jesus with architecturally and historically accurate details. You do not need to be a practicing Christian to appreciate the artistry of the displays. Watch this video which takes you on a virtual tour of the permanent exhibition. Book your visit via the website.
Without a doubt, Villalago has the most extreme presepe. To see it you have to don a scuba diving suit and go underwater! Every year, a group of divers place six ceramic figurines (the Three Wise Men, Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus) from Castelli on the bottom of Lake San Domenico. Even if you are not into diving, the event itself is beautiful: a campfire is lit on the lakeshore, candles flicker under the arches of the picturesque hermitage overlooking Lago di San Domenico and you can see the divers’ lights moving under the dark water. The event normally takes place in December, after Christmas, but there is no set date, so you need to call the town hall to inquire (tel. 0864 740134).
By Michelle Reid and Anna Lebedeva