Christmas is coming… 2020 has been a tough year for all of us, as we see our lives upended by the pandemic. It has dramatically changed how we live, perhaps permanently in some respects, but holiday traditions will continue.
One of Italy’s most revered Christmas traditions is the presepe (often called creche or “nativity scenes” in English). The presepe is the main focus of Christmas decorations in Italy. Every church has one, and they can be found in many piazzas and other public areas.
The presepe was popularized in the 13th century by St. Francis of Assisi. The tradition then was to use live animals and real people. This tradition continues today in Southern Italy starting around December 8 and running through January 6. It is unlikely there will be any live nativity scenes in Italy this year, but it is well worth visiting one if you find yourself in Italy during the holidays post-pandemic.
One very famous presepe is near Naples, in San Giorgio a Cremano. This is more of a village than a traditional manger scene, and the town also hosts an annual exhibition of presepe figures from all over Italy. Some are extremely detailed, and represent modern figures as well as traditional characters. There is even a nationwide association dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the presepe cultural tradition (Associazione Italiana Amici del Presepio).
In recent years, a special attention has been given to gay nativity scenes. The first one took place in Los Angeles, California, where two Saint Josephs are looking after the Holy Baby. In 2017, the nativity scene was recreated at the Vatican, where it was showcased with many other nativity scenes from all over the world.
Milan has always been a trailblazer in gay Christmas celebrations. The gay district of Porta Venezia usually hosts the gay choir ‘Checcoro’, a Christmas market for charity, as well as free HIV tests. Many gay pubs and bars organize holiday parties, always featuring ‘panettone’ and ‘vin brulée’.
This Christmas will be very different…no public celebrations, no bars or restaurants open. It will be a time to focus on the true meaning of Christmas, trying to comfort our friends and family who may be very lonely and giving thanks for what we have, while looking for a much brighter year in 2021.