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.
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.
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
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.
Il presepe sommerso di Laveno Mombello è una delle più suggestive rappresentazioni dedicate alla natività. È composto da ben 42 statue immerse nelle acque del Lago Maggiore.
Scopri i presepi da visitare in Lombardia 👉https://t.co/ql4jyj28vc pic.twitter.com/dgoLgVVeik
— Regione Lombardia (@RegLombardia) December 31, 2019
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.
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.