The tradition of the Presepio in Portugal has remote roots: representations of the Nativity were found in bas-relief on sarcophagi in the 1400, as well as in miniature bibles of the same era. However the plastic Portuguese Presepio reached maximum diffusion and highest artistic results only in the second half of the 18th century thanks to the creative genius of an Italian, Alessandro Giusti, who founded the Mafra school of barro (clay), transmitting this technique to his pupils and those who followed. Famous, among Portuguese Nativity Scenes, the ones found in Lisbon in the Cathedral and in the Museum of Ancient Art, as well as the monumental Presepio in the Estreal Basilica superior to any other in size and number of personages (more than five hundred) a masterpiece of Machado de Castro.
Most popular in Portugal, the living Presepio and Presepio in the home. On Christmas Eve before the consoada (vigil supper), the Presepio is unveiled and a large trunk of wood is placed in the hearth to burn night and day through to the Epiphany as protection from harm. The charcoal remains of the Christmas fire blessed by the Holy Child, are kept and burned during the year in times of danger to ensure protection.
Trade and communication between Spain and Italy during the Bourbon rule in Naples introduced the Presepio to the Iberian peninsula, the region of Catalonia in particular. Since that time the Presepio tradition has been restricted to large Nativity Scenes set up in churches. Figures modeled in clay, by Ramon Amadeu (1745-1821) the greatest sculpture of his day, started a school which was to influence the art of the Presepio from then onwards. Typically Italian figures found also in Spain were the heritage of Francisco Salzillo, son of a Neapolitan.
The first association of Presepio lovers, formed precisely in Spain around 1860, was short-lived. Later in 1921 in Barcelona the Asociacion de Pesebristas led to the formation of numerous such associations all over the country. Able craftsmen in various parts of the region gave rise to the Catalan School of Clay which produced authentic masterpieces, revolutionizing the centuries old style of Presepio in paper and cork, specializing in what came to be known as the historical Presepio, reproducing as faithfully as possible the scenery, environment and customs of Palestine at the time of the birth of Jesus.
Every year just before Christmas markets appear in all the main towns in Spain where people come to buy all sorts of items. There is also a tradition for children to go from home to home carrying a basket bearing a portable Presepio which they uncover as they sing Christmas carols and receive in exchange gifts and sweets.
In Provence, some say that Saint Francis, traditionally known as the inventor of the Presepio, followed the example of a nun known as Mother Pica who built a nativity scene in Provence, southern France in 1200. Examples of the Presepio of Provence are still found in churches in Marseilles, Aix and Avignon. However French craftsmen were certainly greatly influenced by Italian Baroque art, fashioning wooden puppet with hands and face in terracotta or wax. Presepio were built also in homes of more affluent families.
At the same time, 17th century, mechanical and talking Presepio became popular. The portable Presepio was a sort of theatre with puppets which told the Christmas story of the birth of the Saviour. However the French Revolution swept away every type of Presepio, in churches and private homes. It was only with the Concordat reached between Pius VII and Napoleon that the tradition of the Presepio returned. In the early 19th century a certain figure maker, Jean Louis Lagnel, started producing inexpensive clay statues and at the Christmas Market in Marseilles in 1803, even the poorest families could buy their clay figures and the tradition spread to the humblest of homesteads. For a long time Baby Jesus was not made of clay, considered too poor a material to portray the Saviour of the world; the Babe was fashioned out of fine wax, more precious and therefore more suited to portraying the divinity of Mary’s Son.
The tradition of Nativity Scenes, as part of Christmas celebrations, is very popular in German speaking countries, particular those rooted in the Catholic faith, such as Austria, Bavaria, Cologne where, in the cathedral, according to a legend there are the earthly remains of the astrologers or “Three Wise Men”, brought here from Constantinople by the Empress Helena. In fact such is the devotion to the Three Kings or Wise Men that still today on the eve of the Epiphany children dress up as kings and the head of the family burns incense in the home and in the stable, and the initials G M B Gaspar, Melchior and Baldassar are written over the doorway as a blessing. Many regions still keep the custom of “searching for an Inn” for which small Nativity Scenes are built and carried from home to home, looking precisely for “somewhere to stay”. In Tyrol, at Thaur, the village of the Presepio, it is the custom to visit with a guide Nativity Scenes set up in all the homes which display a sign in the window: "WEIHNACHTSKRIPPE" (Nativity Scene).
Steyr, a town northern Austria, has a very rare Presepio, the only with one mechanical figures left in Europe, also has a Baby Jesus Post Office opened in 1950 with its own Christmas Eve post mark. The post office receives and answers letters from children all over the world. The larger churches in Bavaria have permanent Nativity Scenes, to which are added diorama on the life of Jesus or scenes of the Old Testament, for periods of four to six weeks in keeping with the liturgy celebrated during the year. Many cities such as Munich, Nuermberg, Augsburg are renowned for Christmas markets. People come to buy statues for the Presepio, decorations, candles, sweets and cookies and children ride in pony drawn coaches, while musicians play the world famous Silent Night carol composed by Franz Gruber on Christmas Eve in 1818, at Oberdorf near Salzburg.
After the death of St. Francis, the custom of having a crib spread throughout Europe. The crib in the house also became popular by the 17th century owing much of its popularity to the enthusiasm of the Franciscans. In England, the symbol of the crib was taken further in the baking of a Christmas mince pie in an oblong shape as a cradle for the image of the infant Jesus. Every parish church has its Nativity Scene inside and some have larger ones on the outside. The crib scene in the home it is not only a reminder of the first Christmas, it is also a link with all other Christians who have celebrated the joy of the birth of Christ through the ages.
The Presepio, called Bethlehem, is portable. It can be in the shape of a church, a stable or a little chest with curtains and varies in height from 25 to 150 cm. A candle burns in front and the doors or curtains open wide to show the figures sometimes cut out of paper, or fashioned of wood or clay and then decorated with cotton wool. The Presepio is carried from house to house by children called Bethlehemsek, some dressed as angels, who sing and dance.
The Presepio, called Wertep, consists of a neo-classical style chest with two levels decorated with a Christmas Star and animated with puppets. The story is told while the people admire the scenes portrayed. The upper level shows the religious scene: the adoration of the Magi, the massacre of the Holy Innocents and the death of Herod. The lower floor offers amusing scenes of daily life which are very popular. It would seem that the texts for the Wertep were written by students of Kiev Academy, who were very familiar with the tastes and customs of the ordinary people. The Wertep gained in popularity, spreading from Ukraine, to Little Russia then to Belo-Russia, Siberia and eventually to Moscow.
The Szopka is built in the shape of a cathedral and decorated with silver-paper of different colors. It has three parts: the upper level shows angels blowing trumpets and announcing the birth of Jesus, the center level shows the Nativity scene and the lower level shows Polish peasants, shepherds with sheep and oxen, and the Three Wise men. Portable Szopke are carried from house to house by children who sing carols called Colende, and receive chocolate and money in return.
Since early 19th century the Alpine peoples have had a traditional Family Presepio. In the living room of every farmhouse there is a Holy Corner with a shelf on which, during the year, the family Crucifix stands. At Christmas time the shelf is covered with moss to make a hill with the town of Bethlehem on its crest and the stable with the Nativity scene at its foot. The scene is held in place with a special decorated board about 70cm long and 35cm high. It is thought that initially this was simply a woman’s headscarf or shawl, which was then later replaced with a richly embroidered board.