Presepes, otherwise known as nativity scenes or crèches seem to have originated with Saint Francis of Assisi, who reputedly put together the first ‘living’ one (populated by real people) in 1223, following a visit to the Holy Land and Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
“As a kid I loved Christmas not just because it was the time of year for receiving special presents from the Papai Noel (Father Christmas), but also because I loved visiting the presepes in the private homes of the small town where my family lived. Every house at that time had one, some large and ostentatious, others very simple, all beautiful. There were two I particularly liked: Aunt Naninha’s mother’s and Dona Ana’s. The beautiful images from these scenes have remained in my memory ever since.
Thirty years ago in late December, when I was in Rome, I was looking for a suitable place to get married (for language reasons, we needed a Brazilian priest) and I came across a typical Roman church with a wonderful 18th century presepe. It was Santi Cosma e Damiano, a church built on the ruins of a Roman temple, at the edge of the Forum Romanum. I got married in San Giovanni a Porta Latina in the end, but I never forgot the church at the Forum.
A few weeks ago, whilst on holiday in Rome, I chanced upon an exhibition close to my hotel and I recalled this beautiful presepe. A first visit was unsuccessful as the scene is now open to visitors only on Fridays and weekends, but one afternoon I finally made it back there, thirty years later – take a look, isn’t it lovely?”
Zita Elze, December 2014