The Creche tradition

Nativity In the 20th century, especially after the Second World War, the age-old Italian tradition of the creche started to fade away because of the introduction of foreign traditions as the Christmas tree, and Santa Claus came to replace Child Jesus in the hearts of the younger ones.

The Crèche in modern times

Nowadays the crèche tradition is undergoing an ever-growing revival, thanks to religious and private institutions (the Cento Presepi in the Sale del Bramante, Roma), to associations (Amici del Presepe), museums (Brembo di Dalmine in Bergamo), live re-enactments (in Greccio, Rivisondoli, Revine, and hundreds other towns and villages).

There is place to hope therefore that the great tradition will not die, and that the master crèche-makers in Naples and Sicily, who are the heirs of the crèche schools of the past, will go on with their amazing creations. And so in the square and churches, in the school and homes, the crèche and all the symbols of this Christian traditions are back for the joy of young and old.

The Crèche in the Home

Some Advice to make your own crèche:
  • Before starting it is better to make a drawing of the results.
  • Choose carefully the table where you will place the crèche: the ideal would be to be able to look the statues into the eyes. Place the table in a corner against the walls, and prepare the structure (terrain) with boxes in cardboard or wood, or make a frame in wood
  • Prepare some chalk with water (you need to know the technique, otherwise use another method) and dip a large thick cotton cloth (like a sack) into the chalk, then place it on the frame modelling it to create valleys, roads, hills and mountains. Instead of the chalk, you can use special paper (there is paper already colored like the earth and grass). When the chalk is well dry, paint it in the needed color.
  • Build small houses in polistirol, cardboard or wood.
  • Look in parks or fields for twigs resembling tree trunks and branches, fix on them a piece of musk to make the foliage.
  • Place the statues respecting proportions and perspective (use smaller statues for spots which should look in the distance.
  • Place a lamp on the top, and paint it in blue to create the illusion of the night.

History of the Crèche

The crèche as we can see it today took its origin from St. Francis' wish of recreating in a natural environment the scene of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, with real characters of his times, such as shepherds, friars, shepherds and barons, all of whom took part to a re-enactment in Greccio on the Christmas night of the year 1223; the episode inspired Giotto to paint the superb fresco in the Basilica Superiore, Assisi. The first example of a non-living crib in history was made by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1280 with wooden statues, some of which are still preserved in the Crypt of the Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. Since then, up to about mid-15th century artists created terracotta or wooden statues which were then placed against a painted background; the crèche was usually placed inside churches in the Christmas season. The cradle of this craft was Tuscany, but soon the crèche tradition moved to Naples under Charles III Bourbon, and from then to the other Italian States.

The Crèche in Naples

In Naples the crèche found its most congenial home: Neapolitan masters in the 17th and 18th century developed the tradition adapting landscape and characters to those of Campania, with aristocrats, merchants and common people represented in their typical daily chores or in the moments of entertainment, at banquets and in the pub, at home and in the markets, dancing and playing serenades. A further development was in the construction of the statues, which had a skeleton in wire covered in plaster or paper-pulp, with limbs in wood, head in terracotta and crystal eyes, and completely dressed from underwear to costume in real miniature clothes. Each character also had the tools typical of his or her trade and activity, true to all details.

All this gave verisimilitude to the reconstruction, which was set against the landscapes typical of the countryside or of the town: markets, pubs, homes, farmhouses, ruins. The art was funded by the royal court and by the lesser nobility, and the clothes made for the Magi and dignitaries most often imitated those of the important people of the community, and were often woven in the Royal textile mills of San Leucio.

Features of the Neapolitan Crèche

This crèche consists basically of two parts: a basic one, called "mistero", including Mary, Joseph, Child Jesus, angels, ox and donkey, and a complementary part called "diversorio", including everything else, that is the pub, the news of the nativity, the market and hundreds of characters. The nativity group is placed among the ruins of a temple, against a mountain background, colored so as to create the impression of a winter sunset. Among the characters there are the beggar, the gozzuto, the sleeping man, the blind man, the lame man, the gypsy, orchestra players, the women following the Magi, called georgians, tarantella dancers, tartar warriors. The statues are traditionally 30-35 cm. In the Christmas season in via San Gregorio Armeno, Naples, the "mercatino dei pastori" (shepherds' market) is held, where statues of all kinds are on sale.

The Crèche in other regions

During the 17th and 18th centuries there was a crèche school also in Liguria, especially in Genoa, and in Sicily, where artisans followed the Neapolitan tradition but using wax for the heads in Palermo and Syracuse or painted terracotta in Savona and Albisola.

In the 19th century the crèche tradition became a popular feature of each family, rich and poor: in each home a landscape was built with paper-pulp or other material, and small statues in chalk or terracotta were bought from the artisans.

In Apulia, especially in Lecce, the use of paper-pulp became very sophisticated: the substance was painted or treated with fire, and adapted against frames made of iron-wire. In Rome the most prominent families competed for the best, biggest crèche, set against landscapes typical of Rome or the surrounding countryside. There was the custom then to invite citizens and tourists to visit the family's crèche.

The Folk Crèche

This kind of crèche does not only reproduce the urban or countryside of the time, but also includes the trades and the garments and customs of the period, so as to offer a perfect cross-section of the folk culture of the Mediterranean peoples. Throughout the centuries therefore each community developed their own crèche tradition, but the most famous is undoubtedly that of Naples.

The Eastern or Historical Crèche

This Crèche is based on a careful historical study of the landscape and human environment of Palestine 2000 years ago. Usually there are rock crests which forbid the sight of some scenes, which can be seen only with a changing of perspective. The natural environment is dry, the only sparse vegetation are figs, olive trees, bushes and flowers; the homes are light-colored, with rough walls and spherical domes on top, few windows and low doors, usually with one floor and an outside staircase. The garments were loose tunics with a shawl on the head, in neutral colors like ochre, ivory, brown in different hues and usually some scanty stripes or bands. Priests had richer robes with scarves and jewels.