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Italian word of the day: 'Presepe'

The Local Italy
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Italian word of the day: 'Presepe'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Here's one word you'll want for an Italian Christmas.


If you ever spend a Christmas in Italy, you'll quickly become familiar with the word presepe, or its variant presepio.

It comes from the Latin praesaepe, meaning an animal's feeding trough - that is, a manger.

These days a presepe isn't just a manger, though, but an entire nativity scene. 

And when it comes to presepi, Italy pulls out all the stops: whether it's a presepe vivente or 'living nativity' with live actors or an underwater or floating scene, a giant mechanised set, or one made of sand, ice, or even bread.

Quest'anno andremo a Matera per Natale per vedere il presepe vivente.
This year we're going to Matera for Christmas to see the live nativity.

The city centre of Naples even has an entire street - Via San Gregorio Armeno - dedicated to selling presepi year round.

In addition to nativity sets handcrafted in minute detail, you'll also find figurines of public figures and celebrities, from footballers to politicians.

A winged Maradona among more traditional nativity figures in Via San Gregorio Armeno. Photo by Carlo Hermann / AFP.

According to the Franciscan friar Tommaso da Celano, the first presepe was held in 1223 by St Francis of Assisi, who had recently visited the pope in Rome and sought permission to recreate the scene of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.

Celano writes that ahead of his return home, Francis wrote to his friend, the nobleman Giovanni Velita, to ask him to bring an ox and a donkey and a hay-filled trough into his cave hermitage outside the town of Greccio for a Christmas mass.


Celano says that large crowds came with candles and torches to participate in the service and sang hymns, and that Francis saw a vision of baby Jesus in the manger.

After, the small grotto - in which an alter and church was later built, which can still be visited to this day - was said to be the site of many miracles.

2023 is the 800th anniversary of the first nativity scene: if you visit the Vatican this Christmas, you'll find a tribute to Francis' original 1223 nativity in Greccio.

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