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CHRISTMAS

Ten Christmas nativity scenes you’ll only see in Italy

Creative nativity scenes appear in homes, churches and public buildings across Italy in December, each one a little different. How many of these have you seen?

Handmade nativity figures for sale on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, often called 'Christmas Alley'.
Handmade nativity figures for sale on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, often called 'Christmas Alley'.. Photo: Carlo Hermann/AFP

1. The world’s largest

Let’s start with the world’s largest nativity scene, in Cinque Terre. Each year, the picturesque town of Manarola in the Liguria tourist spot is illuminated with over 15,000 lights – a tradition which began back in 1961 with a single cross.

The nativity scene today features than 150 statues illuminated using 8km of electrical cable.

IN PHOTOS: Magical nativity scene lights up Italy’s Cinque Terre coast

The Manarola nativity scene in Italy’s Cinque Terre. Photo: Marco Bertorello / AFP

2. The Vatican’s version

You might expect the scene set up in Piazza San Pietro to be the most traditional of all, but in recent years it has held surprises.

The Vatican’s nativity also now includes a QR code that takes visitors to a video about the Christmas story. There’s even a special Wifi hotspot so visitors don’t have to use up their data.

Some things never change, though: as per tradition, the baby Jesus will be added to the scene by the pope himself on Christmas Eve.

Pope Francis in front of a classic nativity scene in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP

3. Neapolitan style

No one does nativities quite like Naples. Head to the city’s “Christmas Alley”, Via San Gregorio Armeno, for a glimpse into the workshops that turn out many of the crib figures displayed all over Italy.

Among the usual characters, look out for fishmongers, butchers, pizza makers and other figures that have made their way into Neapolitan Christmas tradition – not to mention the pop stars, footballers politicians and other public figures that craftsmen slip in there too.

IN PICTURES: A weird and wonderful Christmas in Naples

A winged Diego Maradona figurine on Via San Gregorio Armeno, Naples. Photo: Carlo Hermann/AFP

4. Living nativities

You might do a double take when you first see one of Italy’s presepi viventi – they are made up of real people in character. And rather than being a small display, these theatrical productions are often staged across an entire town centre.

There are several living nativities across the country, but perhaps the most famous one is found in the southern Italian city of Matera, known for its ancient cave houses and magical landscape. Walking through a 5km route through the sassi, or old town, visitors pass shepherds and artisans who will direct them to the actual crib.

5. A used-car nativity

Hey, why not. This one can be seen at Rome’s annual 100 Presepi exhibition, displaying nativities of all materials and sizes from around the world.

6. An edible version

You definitely shouldn’t tuck into the nativity scene in Olmedo, Sardinia – but you could. The elaborate figures on display at the ‘presepe di pane‘ in the church of Nostra Signore di Talia are made entirely of bread. 

7. On the water

The “floating nativities” of port town Cesenatico, Emilia-Romagna, are the only ones of their kind in the world. The boats display around 50 life-size statues throughout December, portraying a scene typical of the fishing village. Each year a new statue is added, and at night, lights bring the whole scene to life.

A floating nativity scene in Cesenatico. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

8. …and under it

Head to Laveno-Mombello on Lombardy’s Lago Maggiore for a look at a sunken nativity scene. The sight of the holy family – plus some seashells and palm trees – submerged in the waters of the lake makes for a surprising, but undeniably scenic, view.

9. Made of sand

In Jesolo near Venice, a nativity scene made entirely of sand – some 1,500 tonnes of it – is created each year with a different theme. For 2021’s edition, the sand sculpture is dedicated to Italy’s health workers and their efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Photo: christopher_brown/Flickr

10. Made of ice

Several (presumably colder) Italian towns instead sculpt their nativity scenes from ice. Massa Martana, a village in the province of Perugia, is one place where you can see life-sized figures carved from huge blocks of ice and dramatically illuminated.

CHRISTMAS

The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast

If you want to do Christmas Italian style, here's what you need on the table for a truly festive feast.

The food and drink you need for an Italian Christmas feast
Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Seafood

The evening meal on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia) is traditionally based around fish, as a meat-free day before the decadence of the 25th.

If you eat at an Italian home or restaurant on this date, you’re almost certain to be served a wide array of seafood in various forms.

Some families will serve seven types of fish as the meal is known as the Festa dei sette pesci (Feast of the seven fishes) and seven is a symbolic number in Christianity. But don’t surprised if nine or even more different dishes are served.

Photo: Liza Pooor on Unsplash

Eel is one traditional component, with cod, octopus, king prawns, oysters and other types of shellfish all popular choices.

These may be served grilled or raw, depending on where you are, as every part of Italy has different regional favourite recipes and traditions.

Crostini

Rustic crostini generally make an appearance on the Christmas table as a starter, with a topping such as paté, prosciutto and figs, or tomato and mozzarella.

If you’re going to any Christmas parties, expect to see plates piled high with different varieties – they make the perfect bite-sized appetizer.

Pasta

In Italy, you simply can’t have Christmas (or any other day, come to think of it) without a pasta dish.

The methods of cooking vary from region to region and household to household, but two typical staples of the Christmas dinner table are tortellini in brodo (broth) in the north, and lasagna or any other type of pasta al forno (baked pasta) in the south of the country.

Turkey

Yes, some families do eat turkey at Christmas in Italy, although it’s not usually the standard centrepiece and may feature alongside various other meats on an italian Christmas table.

Turkey is however becoming more popular as an option on Christmas Day, likely due to American influence. Other Christmas classics include stuffed chicken or capon.

Photo: Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Veal or ox

Traditional recipes using veal or ox are common alternatives to a poultry-based second course. Again, each region has its own way of preparing the meat and the accompanying vegetables, but two typical recipes are ossobuco alla milanese, or boiled ox, a dish native to Piedmont and Puglia.

Panettone or pandoro

On to dessert! The festive feast is finished off with a slice of panettone, a traditional domed Christmas cake made from sweet brioche bread, usually studded with pieces of candied fruit.

When the Christmas period rolls around you’ll see boxes of panettone stacked from floor to waist-height in every supermarket you enter, and your local pasticceria will no doubt have more elaborate versions flavoured with anything from chocolate to pistachio cream.

READ ALSO: Panettone or pandoro: Which is the best Italian Christmas cake?

Somewhat similar to a panettone, the pandoro is denser, richer, taller, and with a slightly more delicate flavour and texture.

True to its name (pandoro = golden bread), the cake is yellow-golden in colour. It sits higher than an a panettone and is baked into a star shape, with the base wider than the top.

A Christmas pandoro.

A Christmas pandoro. Photo: Nicola/Flickr.

pandoro is usually served plain with a dusting of icing sugar (often provided in a separate packet, to be added right before serving by shaking along with the cake in its cellophane wrapping to completely coat its exterior).

You’re likely to find the two cakes vying for prominence at any Italian Christmas dinner table. Some families will proudly declare a strong preference for panettone or pandoro, while others simply buy one of each to save argument.

Torrone

The name of this dessert means ‘big tower’ (though it actually comes from the verb for ‘to toast’) so you know you’re in for something spectacular. It’s made of honey and sugar and is basically a kind of nougat – the Toblerone chocolate bar was inspired by this sweet’s popularity.

The recipe varies depending on where you are in Italy. In the north you’ll often find varieties made with hazelnuts, while in the south almond-based recipes are more typical.

Biscotti, pastries and donuts

There are likely to be plenty of sweet treats at the end of the meal, enjoyed with coffee. In Naples, honey-covered dough balls (struffoli) are often on the menu; chestnut tortelli (crescent-shaped parcels stuffed with the sweet filling) are another classic, and biscotti get a seasonal twist with cinnamon or nutty flavourings.

Prosecco

Red or white wines are usually served to match each course, and after you’ve finished eating, it’s time to move onto the bubbles. Prosecco, or another variety of Italian sparkling wine, is one of the most popular ways to finish off the meal.

If you’d rather have your fizz as a pre-meal drink, rest assured that it’s equally popular at aperitivo hour.

Photo: Mel Maldonado-Turner on Unsplash

Bombardino

Literally translating as ‘the bomb’, this tasty drink is basically Italian eggnog. It’s made up of brandy, zabaione (egg cream), whipped cream and cinnamon, hails originally from the Lombardy region and is often the apres-ski drink of choice at Italy’s ski resorts. But it’s also perfect for a cosy Christmas afternoon by the fire.

If you don’t have those ingredients at your disposal, a caffè corretto is a simpler option: an espresso with a drop of something strong, usually grappa, but brandy or sambuca are also popular additions.

Buon appetito!