The presepio, or manger, has maintained its pre-eminence in Roman Catholic countries. It is said to owe its origin to St. Francis, who constructed the first one in 1223. Subsequently the custom spread throughout Italy, and afterward Germany and the Netherlands.
The presaepii vary in size and expensiveness from the rude wooden figures of the Alpine goat-herd, cut out with his own hands during the long winter evenings, to the pretentious representation of the wealthy burgher, with its exquisite carving and gilding, velvet drapery and cloth of gold, costing thousands of crowns. In many churches the whole parish contribute to the expense of fitting up tho presepio, while moribund misers do not forget to endow it with a legacy in their last will and testament.
One of these representations in a church of the Capuchins near by has become more familiar to the younger members of our household than the Christmas-stocking scene around the old familiar fireside. The Holy Family occupy the foreground. In the manger reposes the Bambino, over whom St. Joseph, holding a bouquet, and the Virgin, dressed in satin and lace, with blue veil and silver crown, bend admiringly. Around kneel sundry shepherds in the act of adoration; while overhead, angels with golden wings float among the clouds and chant the Gloria in Exoelms. A silver star with its comet-like trail directs the approach of the Eastern magi, who, with their brilliant retinue of horsemen and attendants, dazzle the eyes of the juvenile spectators with their Oriental pomp and pageantry.
Here a ragged beggar stretches out a beseeching palm, and there a devout hermit kneels before a rustic chapel. In the background rise the mountains, dotted with villas and chalets, with flocks of sheep and goats grazing here and there upon their grassy slopes, while peasants are every where seen approaching, bearing the products of the farm, the dairy, and the chase as their simple offerings to the new-born child.
Jnst opposite a tribune has been erected, from which dapper little boys and dainty little girls, greatly to the edification of indulgent parents, recite, or rather intone, selections of poetry and prose appropriate to the festive occasion.
In some places in Bohemia they use the Krippe, or manger, as the receptacle of the presents which the Christ – child, drawn through the air by four milk-white horses, is fabled to bring in his chariot laden with all sorts of toys and sweetmeats. So, too, the representation is frequently accompanied with dramatic performances, styled Krippen«ptele, or manger plays.
In the Bohemian Forest the Christ-child, after announcing his approach in the deepeuing twilight by the tinkling of his little bell, throws into the children, Christmas presents through the partially opened door, or else, in token of displeasure, he substitutes a rod, or a handful of pease, the former suggestive of punishment, the latter of penance. The kneeling on peas during prayer appears to be still in some Catholic countries a favorite method of doing penance, and an Italian friend relates as an unpleasant item of his boyhood’s experience that it was formerly a cherished mode of administering discipline in the schools.
The Bambino is the Santa Claus of Italy. It is not unusual, however, among the Italians for the children to accompany their parents in their “shopping” during the week preceding Christmas, with a view of selecting their own presents. Meanwhile the streets are transformed into fairs, and every public square becomes a bazaar. Then there is the presepio in the churches and private families, and the midnight mass on Christmas – eve, when the Bambino, held up iu front of the high altar by the officiating priest, is devoutly kissed by the faithful, while old and young emulate the choir in singing that beautiful pastoral hymn, commencing, …..