Monday, 10 December 2012

‘Away In A Manger’ Is More Than A Christmas Carol In Italy

The English Reformation transformed the religious landscape of Britain and catholic religious traditions and iconography were made illegal.

However, in catholic countries these time-honoured traditions and religious aspects remained intact. At Christmas and Easter especially, the difference is marked by the tremendous effort made regarding the central Christmas decoration and that is the Prespe. Anyone having spent time on a Flavours cooking course will know the importance of tradition in so many Italian dishes, cakes and confectionary.

So, what is it, you may ask? A Prespe or Presepio is a traditional nativity scene. Quite a battle ensues to see which location in Italy can produce the most impressive scene. You will find a Prespe in every church and its presence is everywhere as well as countries like Portugal for example.

Not only will you find Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in a manger you will often see representations of village life, familiar objects, landmarks, local people and politicians included.

Long queues will form to see such a dramatic spectacle and this usually begins on the 8th December and runs right through until Epiphany on the 6th January.

Christmas Eve is definitely the night for the Presepio and everyone will see this marvellous representation at midnight mass and then return to the house where miniature figurines are displayed. This tradition of having a crib in the home began way back in the 16th century. Baby Jesus is added to the crib scene on this night and households take great pride in their figurines. The first ones appear to have been carved at some point in the thirteenth century.

The history goes back some nine hundred years when St Francis of Assisi made the very first in Greccio where a tableau was assembled in a cave. Mass was said there on Christmas Eve and a pageant representing the nativity was also enacted which continues to this day.

However, there is also evidence of a crib scene as early as 1025 in Naples in the Church of S. Maria del Presepe. Naples perhaps is the most impressive exponent of this tradition and literally hundreds of these scenes are constructed all over the city. It is also home of many of the figurines which are made and painted here and Naples has developed a world-wide reputation for its cribs and crib making. The big nativity scene can include as many as 600 different pieces.

If you are ever in Naples there is a street of the nativity makers called the 'Via San Gregorio Armeno' which is filled with nativity craftspeople. Here you can purchase your very own Presepio.

Yet, wherever you go in Italy at this time of the year, you will stumble across a Presepio. If you have booked a Flavours cooking holiday in Tuscany in December, for example, you are bound to see some spectacular examples. Some of the figurines are antiques in their own right and the charm of seeing so many home-made representations is infectious.

Of course the Vatican City puts up a massive Presepio in St Peter’s Square which draws huge crowds from all over the world and this usually has its unveiling on the 24th December at the specific hour of 10 o’clock. Rome itself is never outshined and their Presepe are elaborate and large scale in piazzas throughout the season.

Nothing beats this simple scene which exemplifies so much. Those who like the idea of returning to their roots at Christmas and searching for a more spiritual and simpler response may well find a few days spent in Italy, cooking and touring the Presepi and Christmas markets is an antidote to the rampant commercialism which has been in evidence for so many years.

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