Diocese of Brooklyn Priest Shares Italian Nativity Tradition During Christmas

Tags: Currents Faith, Inspiration, Queens, NY

By Jessica Easthope

Fr. Tom Vasilotti is very careful when handling his presepio. It’s the Italian word for crib, used to refer to a nativity scene that’s scaled out to show the world around the manger where Jesus was born. The manger in the presepio at the rectory of divine mercy parish in Greenpoint, Fr. Tom built by hand.

“It’s kind of a ritual, I put it together with the pins of wood and it’s kind of a fun thing and every year I try to add something to it, it’s a spirituality I have,” he said.

The history of the presepio dates back 800 years to the first one, a live version put on by St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a piece of church and Fr. Tom’s own history. He’s been adding to his for more than a decade, bringing back more pieces from his mother’s home town of Naples with every visit.

“You felt as if Christ was truly present there and I think that’s what the presepio is about it’s a reminder of a deep, personal relationship with Christ and a memorial of his birth and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Fr. Tom.

The scenes built in presepi aren’t necessarily historically accurate but they tell a story of the time and place where christ entered the world, and for Fr. Tom the true story of humankind, and all the faults that come with it.

“I think it’s the incarnation that God becomes man and enters into our time and our history and he brings all sorts of people together, there’s a shepherd asleep and maybe drunk, people are not paying attention we’re asleep often times, but the devotion life make it more personal,” Fr. Tom said.

Unlike a traditional nativity scene with the holy family and a few additional figures, Fr. Tom says a presepio shows that everyone has a story and gifts to bring to their relationship with Christ. His craft is one of his gifts.

“What I take from that part and we bring what gifts we can bring. Bring your gifts, what gifts do you have, what can you offer the child Jesus, what do you give to him,” he said.

And Fr. Tom shared some good news for anyone who wants to extend their Christmas season,  he says best practice is to keep your decorations and nativities, or presepi out until the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, that’s on February 2.