CHIAVARI, Italy – The sign went up in the Chiavari Tourist Office last week announcing this year’s nativity competition. The idea is to give a prize to the store or business that has the best nativity scene. It’s a tradition you’ll find in many small towns throughout Italy. In Saronno the only rule was the shops and businesses had to use the products they produce to create their nativities. So that meant that the pasta shop’s nativity might be made from macaroni and sheets of lasagna dough, and the baker might glue together some breadcrumbs to make the roof of his flour bag stable.
Since this is my first Christmas in Chiavari I’ll have to wait and see what the story is here. So far I have not seen a Christmas tree, which is a German tradition, but that may change as the Christmas season doesn’t officially start in Chiavari until the 7th of December. The only thing I am certain of is that there will be a nativity scene, also known here as a crèche, either in or in front of the Duomo, or perhaps both.
Nativity scenes, depicting the birth of Christ, have been around for more than 2,000 years. St. Francis is said to have created the first one in 1223 using real people and live animals so that the illiterate congregation could understand the idea of Christmas. The idea then morphed into using figurines instead of real people.
In the beginning nativity figurines were simple, handmade wooden statues of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus and the Wise Men presenting gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were placed against a painted background of a stable in Bethlehem. But as time passed the crèche became more and more sophisticated and the plain wooden figures gave way to elaborately dressed figurines made from terra-cotta.
|Creche at the Vatican, Rome Italy|
Today In Rome In addition to the Holy Family, nativity scenes often include aqueducts and olive trees. The most popular nativities are the life-size figures in St. Peter's Square and the nativity set up at the top of the Spanish Steps. There is also an annual exhibit of more than 100 crèche in the city’s Piazza del Popolo.
In Lecce, the nativity figurines are made from papier-mâché; an art form that flourishes in this jewel of a Pugliese town. Also in Puglia, in the small town of Grottaglie which is known for its ceramics, the local museum has an extensive collection of sculpted nativity scenes. And in Sicily, almost every church and piazza has a nativity made of coral, alabaster and mother of pearl. But maybe the most spectacular nativity of all is the live re-enactment in the small town of Custonaci, near Trapani. In Custonaci, the entire town is set up to look like an ancient village and the local residents dress up as Jesus, Mary and Joseph, bringing to life the story of the first Christmas.
|Nativity Scene by Piero della Francesca (1470-75)|
There are a lot of workshops in Italy where nativity figurines are made, but it’s only in Naples that artisans still use the traditional methods developed there hundreds of years ago. When I was the editor of an English language magazine in Milan, I interviewed Signora Clementia Colella, one of the few women in Naples producing hand-made nativity figurines. I wanted to interview her again for this article but I couldn’t find her. She may have retired as she was not young the last time we talked.
But her age had nothing to do with the joy and satisfaction she got from creating incredible works of art. She explained that there are different types of figurines, and the ones she makes are the traditional type with terracotta heads, shoulders, arms and legs. She said she takes her terracotta pieces to be fired in a kiln near her workshop and ages them using an old technique of covering the pieces with wax and baking them in an extremely hot oven. It’s the unique baking process that produces the lovely aged patina that gives her figurines so much character.
|Detail from a Neapolitan Creche|
If you are in going to be in New York City during the holidays, there is a Neapolitan Baroque crèche, flanked by 18th century Neapolitan angels and cherubs on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from November 26, 2013, through January 6, 2014. It’s well worth seeing. If you are going to be in Italy for the holidays, just look around you, you’ll find nativity scenes everywhere, even in the train stations.