The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Presepio

Source: William Hone, The Year Book of Daily Recreation and Information. London: Thomas Tegg, 1832; entry from December 29.

After Christmas day, during the remainder of December, there is a Presepio, or representation of the manger in which our Saviour was laid, to be seen in many of the churches at Rome. That of the Ara Cśli is best worth seeing; which church occupies the site of the temple of Jupiter, and is adorned with some of its beautiful pillars.

On entering, we found daylight completely excluded from the church; and, until we advanced, we did not perceive the artificial light, which was so managed as to stream in fluctuating rays, from intervening silvery clouds, and shed a radiance over the lovely babe and bending mother, who, in the most graceful attitude, lightly holds up the drapery which half conceals her sleeping infant from the bystanders. He lies in richly embroidered swaddling clothes, and his person, as well as that of his virgin mother, is ornamented with diamonds and other precious stones; for which purpose, we are informed, the princesses and ladies of high rank lend their jewels. Groups of cattle grazing, peasantry engaged in different occupations, and other objects, enliven the picturesque scenery; every living creature in the group, with eyes directed towards the Presepio, falls prostrate in adoration. In the front of this theatrical representation a little girl, about six or eight years old, stood on a bench, preaching extempore, as it appeared, to the persons who filled the church, with all the gesticulation of a little actress, probably in commemoration of those words of the psalmist, quoted by our blessed Lord — “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise.” In this manner the Scriptures are acted; not “read, marked, and inwardly digested.” The whole scene had, however, a striking effect, well calculated to work upon the minds of a people whose religion consists so largely in outward show. Citation: “A narrative of three years in Italy.”

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