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Is the Presepe Tradition Still Relevant in Italy?

The art of Presepe making is quintessentially tied to Italy. Saint Francis of Assisi, the country’s patron saint, is said to have been the first one to recreate the Nativity at Christmastime, as a way to honor the birth of Christ and to give people a visual, tangible instrument to get closer to the spirituality of the period.

For every Italian, at least up to my generation (I was born at the end of the 1970s), making a Presepe was as part of Christmas as the Tree: every family would have a crib — a capanna, as we say — and a more or less large, more or less valuable collection of statuettes used to recreate a snapshot of the moment of Jesus’birth.

The Presepe of Our Childhood

There were shepherds with their flock, bakers and butchers, washerwomen and fishermen; there were bridges and wells, mills and houses that looked nothing like those typical of the Middle East, but rather resembled those of our countryside, because the Presepe was also that: a way to show Jesus was born everywhere and anywhere.

Presepe was also, sometimes, a reason for little familiar diatribes: exigent purists would expect real moss in it — we would use it to create the semblance of fields and roads — but that meant spending an afternoon looking for it in the garden and a lot of cleaning to do around the Presepe for the time it stayed up. That’s why synthetic moss became popular in the mid 80s, a much more practical and cleaner option.

Well, believe me when I say families rowed over which was better and I have clear memories of my own brother and mother having heated conversations about the advantages of one or the other.

Little nuggets of Italian life, around a Winter fireplace.

The Italian Presepe: a mirror to Gospels’narrative

Presepe also had to strictly follow the Gospels’ narrative to a T, so Baby Jesus would not make His appearance until Midnight on the 24th: up to then He, the smallest of all statuettes, would be kept somewhere safe, like a little box on the mantelpiece, or hidden in plain sight, under a snow-white cotton ball, right between His mom and dad.

This was Presepe then. A revered piece of our family history, something that would in the end bring us all together on the days before Christmas and, in some families, a bit of a heirloom too, especially if it was made with precious statuettes.

But Presepe, hasn’t only been a common fixture in homes and churches –where of course is still very much present — but also in public places, especially in schools, where it would be set in the main hall, just under or beside the tree, a hopeful reminder to all children that the holidays were near.

And today? Things have changed a lot, today.

The Presepe in Italy: let’s talk about immigration

We need to tackle a difficult theme, that of immigration in Italy.

Mind, I don’t want to get into a diatribe on whether or not the country has been handling the current migratory flux correctly: that’s too much of an icky issue to discuss on a Christmastime article. We need to make some clarity on the situation, though, so bear with me for a moment.

Italy, just like the vast majority of European countries, has grown to be a rather multi-cultural nation, especially in the past 30 to 40 years. Families from Magreb and Albania, from Nigeria and China have today children who were born in Italy, speak Italian, and consider Italy their home.

And then, there are also new immigrants, those who only recently have decided to seek a better life in the Belpaese, perhaps blinded by the ideal our country portrays of itself, rather than the actual opportunities it can offer to them.

Integration has never been easy. A people of migrants ourselves, we Italians have become diffident towards migrants. It’s simple to vulgarize the problem by generalizing it, just like populists do, blaming people from abroad for all moral, legal and cultural issues our country has been facing in recent years. Cohabitation has been difficult and still is, as it is natural, in a country that, in the end, is relatively “new” to the phenomenon: let’s not forget that, until a mere 50 or 60 years ago, we were the ones leaving, as our national economy couldn’t sustain us all properly. A very different situation when compared to, for instance, countries like France or the UK which, also in name of their colonial past, are home today to third generation migrant families.

Italy is still far from reaching that point, quite simply because economic migration to the country started later, but there are some other considerations to make. While it’s undoubted that there are issues with integration — are Italians too diffident? Are migrants unwilling to integrate?The debate is open — Italy’s political forces have been exploiting the phenomenon of migration hugely to obtain a larger chunk of power, as banal and cliché as it sounds: we all know how these things work, as there are examples of it everywhere, US included.

Left wingers, though, have their share of responsibilities, too. And that’s where our Presepe enters once again the scene.

Is our Presepe politically incorrect?

According to many Italian liberals, it is. Especially when put up in schools and public places. Presepe, we know that, represents the Nativity of Christ and this is the big issue, apparently, because our schools, our theaters, offices and public areas are populated by many who are not Christian at all.

According to its detractors, the Presepe has too much of a religious connotation and can be “offensive” to people of other faiths. The problem has become particularly delicate in schools, where both Presepe and traditional live Nativity reenactments have been increasingly canceled across the country in the past years. Some principals have erased from the school lingo the expression “Christmas Holidays” or, as a matter of fact, the word “Christmas” itself because too evocative of Christianity. Natale, Presepe, anything even vaguely referring to such a context became taboo in many Italian schools, with the sole aim — or so we are said — to respect other faiths and cultures.

But is it really so?

Presepe: Italians against Italians

Something keeps on coming back to my mind. It must have been about 4 or 5 years ago, probably the first Christmas I spent in Italy after having lived abroad for 15 years. The Principal of a Roman school banned Presepe for the above mentioned reasons, causing an outrage among parents and the event made the national news. Soon, it was all a “us versus them” situation: Italians felt banning the Presepe was letting “others” interfere too much with our traditions, they felt threatened.

The result was a rise in xenophobic messages on social media and in the street, a threat to the already delicate balance between national and non-national communities in the country. That’s when representatives of the Italian Muslim community (it was specifically for the sake of Muslim children in the school that the ban had been placed) bought a full page on one of our most popular dailies to declare they respect for Christmas, for what it means for Italians and for the Presepe as a marker not only of spirituality but also of Italian culture. In the end, we were all on the same side.

This little example speaks volumes about what I believe is the real issue at stake, at least when it comes to Presepe: it isn’t non-Italian born or non-Christians to have a problem with it, it’s Italians themselves. Instinctively, one may believe it’s a religious matter, but I believe it’s more complex and articulated than that.

While the plummeting percentage of people practicing has been a fact for long, just as it is the relatively open dislike for the Church as an institution — and, even as a practicing Catholic, I can’t quite fault people on feeling that way —

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