It was in Italy that the Nativity scene was created by the country's patron saint.
After Christianity was established as the religion of Italy, the season changed focus. Instead of festivities ending on New Year's, they extended to January 6th. This is when the Three Kings were believed to have reached Bethlehem. They gave gifts to the infant Jesus on that day. The Romans too exchanged presents on Epiphany.
The manger scenes that we associate with Christmas originated in Italy. The tradition began with Italy's patron saint--St. Francis of Assisi. It happened in a rustic area, about 60 miles from Rome.
In the year 1223, St. Francis was visiting the town of Greccio for Christmas. To help the people of the town connect to the experience of the Holy Family he created the first "live Nativity scene."
St. Francis and his poor friars led a throng of singing villagers up Mount Lacerone to the Greccio monastery on Christmas Eve. There he had gathered a donkey, an ox, and a dozen peasants to play the parts of the Holy Family and shepherds. The villagers took turns, passing in line, to see this site. The grotto where the scene was set up was too small to hold everyone.
Some stories say that St. Francis then celebrated Mass in front of the nativity scene. A Mass may have been celebrated, but it was not led by St. Francis. St. Francis was not a priest, but a deacon.
Each year the manger scene is recreated in Greccio. It remains simple, much like Francis himself. The power of the sacred moment is allowed to touch people where they are in their lives.
In parishes throughout Italy the presepio is a work of art. These are not simple manger scenes, but huge panoramas that contain large numbers of biblical characters, angels, animals and people from every day life. During Advent families will travel to various parishes to visit the presepi. One of the most famous is the presepio that stands outside in Piazza San Pietro.