Ten Christmas nativity scenes you’ll only see in Italy

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
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?

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.


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