Presepi - Nativity scenes in Lazio

As I tweeted a few days ago, there isn't much to do around New Year in Italy. Most shops close (apart from the big franchises) and everyone stays at home to spend time playing tombola with their extended families. So what can you do if you want to get out of the house for a few hours? Well, there is something to do that combines a sense of tradition, festive cheer, religion and of the owner having too much time on their hands... presepi, also known as Nativities.

Presepi (singular - presepe) are pretty big here. Every house has one, often lit and placed in the window for passers-by to enjoy. In a country so deeply steeped in religious symbolism, they are bigger than the Christmas tree. Not only that, but often towns have little competitions or tours of presepi set up, ideal for that little break from the family eating and playing tresette (a card game that's far too complicated for me!)

Wherever you are in Italy, be sure to check out the local churches and look for local nativity scenes. Almost every church will have one, often reinterpreted with new materials or a modern twist (especially if you're further south in Italy). I've heard that the best presepi are found around Napoli, where they take them to another level, including figurines of footballers, cartoon characters and even politicians (although never for those in churches)!

Civita Castellana, about an hour or so north of Rome (at the end of SS2 - via cassia) has set up a little tour of presepi around the town. It's free, most presepe have the actual owner/creator in attendance, they provide a map of the town with all the presepi, and it's a great way to see the town. I would recommend you start at the Duomo, right in the center of town. There is a little doorway to the right of the Duomo entrance, leading down to two presepi, one of which was made by an 8 year old (which is pretty impressive considering!)

We did the tour a few days ago, taking in about 6 presepi. It took about 40mins in total. My favorite was the presepe in ceramica, I simply liked it's style, even if it didn't have the usual night/day cycle or running water features that the other presepi had. The presepi are open until the 6th January from 11am-12:30 on holidays and 17:00-19:00 on working days. The winner will be declared on the 9th at 17:00 in the town hall. If you want to make it a day-trip from Rome, click through to my post on Civita Castellana to find out what else there is to do there.

Another Nativity tradition in these parts is the live nativity, or presepe vivente. These include real people, who recreate the lifestyle of the time and can be quite interactive. We went to one of these just outside the picturesque town of Sutri (in the province of Viterbo, about 1.5hrs north of Rome).

The nativity is set in and around some ancient Etruscan caves (well worth a visit in their own right). Entrance is €4, which, while a little excessive, doesn't detract from watching the 'blacksmith' hammer horseshoes (and then hand them out to the crowd), people making bread and pottery, and of course a live manger complete with live Donkey! (always a crowdpleaser with me). The presepe vivente runs every evening from 17:30 till 20:00 until the 6th January.

Don't worry if you can't make it to Civita Castellana or Sutri, I'm sure that there'll be presepi wherever you are in Italy. Catch them while you can though, they'll all disappear for another year when La Befana comes (epiphany)!

For more pictures of presepi, click here to go through to the LazioExplorer facebook page.
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  1. Happy Befana! I love nativity scenes and the vivente one is beautiful! There is one in Tuscany too, Casole d'Elsa, every other year.

    Thank you for this lovely post!

  2. the Vetralla presepe vivente is celebrating 25 years! Two more "shows" Jan 6 and Jan 7th. More on my 50yearsinItaly blog.
    Shall we have a Lazio bloggers meetup sometime soon? ...