A Prayer Before the Presepio

The Presepio

No one does the presepio, or nativity scene, quite like the Neapolitans. The images above, taken last April at Most Precious Blood Church in Manhattan, demonstrate this. The traditional Neapolitan presepio has many characters, some would say up to 72, who were discussed in a previous blog post. Often, the modern presepio will incorporate political themes, or theme's from the spiritual life of the family that builds it: favored saints, etc. 

A prayer to say before the presepio

The following prayer, posted by this lovely church website with plenty of information about Neapolitan folk Catholicism, can be said while standing before any nativity scene. It can be said by one person alone, or better yet, the different lines can be given to different members of the family as indicated. 

What I love about this prayer is it demonstrates how material culture is used as a jumping off point for personal spirituality. Each element of the presepio inspires another line about the ways in which we hope to come closer to God. 

English translation 

All: Baby Jesus, our peace and reconciliation, have pity on us! 

All: Lord Jesus, I come before your presepio with my heart full of trust and tenderness. I want to be like the shepherds who, in the middle of the night, woke up to come and see the Savior. Open my ears to hear the song of peace sung by the angels, and my eyes to see in you the Prince of Peace. May I recognize you as the Messiah in my life and bring me into your presence, as I see was done for your father and mother in this presepio. You come into the world to reconcile heaven and earth. Come reconcile me, as well, with the Father. I want to be with you for a little while in your cave: only those next to you will find peace and repose, my doubts become certainties, my troubles become stillness, my sadness becomes joy, my anxiety becomes serenity. In this space, my sorrow will find relief, I will take courage to overcome fear, I will refill myself with generosity in order not to give in to degradation and to resume the journey of hope.

Mother: Mary, I see in your face similarity to Jesus. You gave birth to the One who is our reconciliation. Mother, I take refuge in you and under your protection I implore God’s forgiveness. Make me like Him, to be Mercy like him. 

Father: Saint Joseph, teach me to protect the presence of God within me as you have protected Baby Jesus and your wife Mary. Help me, along with the help of the Holy Angels, to recognize the devious attacks of those who would kill in me the living presence of the Lord that the Father has wanted for me since the day of my Baptism. May I, after the visit to this presepio, guard Jesus and Mary with the same love that I can admire in your eyes. 

Children: Holy Angels of God, continue to be as today the voice of God that calls me, inviting me to rise up out of the darkness in which I fall because of my weaknesses and sin. 

All: Glory to God! Alleluia! Amen! 

Italian original 

Tutti: Bambino Gesù nostra pace e riconciliazione abbi pietà di noi!

Tutti: Signore, Gesù vengo davanti al tuo presepio con il cuore pieno di fiducia e di tenerezza. Voglio essere come i pastori che nel cuore della notte si sono alzati per andare a vedere il Salvatore.
Apri anche le mie orecchie per sentire il canto di pace degli angeli e i miei occhi per vedere in te il Principe della Pace. Che io ti riconosca come il Messia nella mia vita e mi metta alla tua presenza, come vedo fare al tuo papà e alla tua mamma in questo presepio.
Tu vieni nel mondo per riconciliare il cielo e la terra. Vieni a riconciliare anche me con il Padre.
Voglio stare un po’ con te nella tua grotta: solo qui accanto a te troverò pace e riposo, i miei dubbi si muteranno in certezze, i miei affanni in quiete, la mia tristezza in gioia, il mio turbamento in serenità. In questo spazio troverà sollievo il mio dolore, acquisterò coraggio per superare la paura, mi riempirò di generosità per non arrendermi all’avvilimento e per riprendere il cammino della speranza.

Mamma/Sposa: Maria, vedo nel tuo volto la somiglianza con Gesù. Tu dai alla luce Colui che è la nostra riconciliazione.
Madre, mi rifugio in te e sotto la tua protezione  imploro il perdono di Dio. Rendimi somigliante a Lui, per essere come lui Misericordia

Papà/ Sposo: San Giuseppe, insegnami a proteggere la presenza di Dio in me come tu hai protetto Gesù Bambino e tua moglie Maria. Aiutami, con l’aiuto dei SS. Angeli, a riconoscere i subdoli attacchi di chi vorrebbe uccidere in me la presenza viva del Signore che il Padre ha voluto per me nel giorno del mio Battesimo. Che, dopo la visita a questo presepio, io guardi Gesù e Maria con lo stesso amore che posso ammirare nei tuoi occhi.

Figli: Angeli Santi di Dio continuate ad essere come oggi la voce di Dio che mi chiama, invitandomi ad alzarmi dal buio in cui cado a causa delle mie debolezze e del peccato.

Tutti: Gloria a Dio! Alleluia! Amen!

World Between Worlds: The Neapolitan Presepe


The presepe or presepio is a Neapolitan tradition similar to the modern nativity scenes popular in Europe and the Americas. The presepe presents a large set of rich images which stands on its own merit as a symbolic landscape but can also provide a deeper understanding of the symbolic language of Neapolitan folktales. 

The featured image of this blog post is a photograph of a Neapolitan presepe on display in Most Precious Blood Church in Manhattan. More images of a presepe are available in this post.

Reflecting the pagan antecedents of Christmas, the presepe has a distinctly Saturnalian character. Time is stopped in the presepe--which, incidentally, may be why tombola (a lottery game similar to bingo) is traditionally played for fun or employed for divination at Christmastime.

The presepe represents both a descent into the underworld, as well as the periodic return of the dead to this world from All Souls’ Day to Epiphany. This is why the presepe is normally set up on November 2 and left up until January 6.

At the heart of the presepe are the Madonna and San Giuseppe, who await Gesù Bambino in the cave where he will be born. It is in the dark depths of the earth that the light is born, year after year. Traditionally, the figure of Gesù Bambino is only placed in the presepe at the stroke of midnight when Christmas Day begins. Feasting until daybreak often follows this momentous occasion.

But the Holy Family are not the only entities present. Many other figures from mythology and folklore constitute the majority of the elements in a traditional presepe. An exhaustive list of these elements, of which some sources claim there are up to 72, is beyond the scope of this blog post. However, we can review some of the most interesting characters, including pagan divinities, spirits and devils, and the dead.


A figure on a driving a cart full of barrels called Cicci Bacco represents Dionysus, god of wine.

An older woman who represents Demeter, goddess of agriculture, gives birdseed to a hen who represents Persephone, maiden goddess of the underworld.

A hunter with a bow represents the sun-god Apollo. .

A noblewoman, either white or black and present with the Three Kings, represents the moon-goddess Diana.

An elderly couple represents Chronos and Rhea, the father and mother of the gods.

Three elderly women spinning thread represent the Fates.

Spirits & devils

The devil himself is often represented in the presepe.

The innkeeper and his hostel have a particularly sinister reputation and are believed to represent the temptations and the dangers of the temporal world.

One folktale recounts how the elderly washerwoman was a disguise employed by the devil so that he could get near the Madonna and try to prevent her from giving birth.

Some say the monk represents a mischievous spirit called the Munaciello.

The dead

The wandering souls of the dead are represented by sheep. The shepherd who leads them represents Hermes in his role as a psychopomp, or guide for the recently deceased making the journey to the underworld.

Beggars can also represent the dead, particularly the suffering souls in Purgatory, who suffer from heat, hunger, and thirst, and who must be prayed for and given solace through traditional methods.

Various water sources present in the presepe are also connected to the dead. The well has a diabolical reputation, particularly on Christmas Eve, when its water was traditionally taboo. It was also believed that one could scry into well water to see the heads of all those who would die during the year. The river, meanwhile, is linked to death through the mythological underworld rivers such as the Styx.


Further reading

Lo straordinario simbolismo del Presepe Napoletano di Luca Zolli

Il presepe popolare napoletano di Roberto De Simone

Il presepe nella cultural napoletana