Christmas in Italy comes to life through wondrous nativity scenes

Christmas in Italy comes to life through wondrous nativity scenes

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

As the nation with the largest number of Catholics in Europe, it’s perhaps no small wonder that many Christmas customs in Italy proudly display their ties to the dominant religion. When the holiday season rolls around, visitors to Italy are apt to notice the proliferation of nativity scenes, not only in churchyards but in shop windows, parks, squares and other public spaces. The "presepe" or "presipio tradition" in Italy has deep roots, and as Christmas draws near, a stop to admire the artistry and creativity behind these displays is something even those not particularly religious can enjoy. Here are some ways in which these centuries-old customs live on and places to go to see them firsthand.

Living nativity scenes: The name of St. Francis of Assisi is bound to ring familiar, even to those not raised in the Catholic faith. One of the two patron saints of Italy (the other is Catherine of Siena), the second half of the saint’s name relates to the Umbrian hill town in which he was born at the end of the 12th century. The Catholic friar who turned his back on wealth to live a life of poverty was known for his respect for nature and love of animals. In 1223, in order to illustrate the story of Christ’s birth into the humblest of circumstances, Francis staged a simple nativity scene. "Presepi viventi," the name for the tradition of bringing the story of Christ’s birth to life with human actors and live animals, took off and spread well beyond the country’s borders.

The village of Greccio, in the province of Rieti and the region of Lazio, is the site of the first-ever living nativity scene. While passing through the area, Francis had been struck by the resemblance of the local terrain to the scenery he had observed during his travels to Bethlehem. Francis sought and received permission from the pope at the time, Pope Honorious III, to set up a simple manger scene. Through the years, the reenactment grew in size and scope, and it’s a tradition that is played out today as well.

The Sanctuary of Greccio is an extensive architectural ensemble perched high upon a rocky ledge offering commanding views of the surrounding countryside. The heart of the sanctuary is a chapel adorned with frescoes depicting St. Francis kneeling in adoration at Mary and the Christ child. Greccio, located some 60 miles north of Rome, is also home to a Nativity Museum. According to this online program, reenactments of the Nativity scene are scheduled for Dec. 24, 26 and 28, as well as Jan. 1, 2, 6 and 8 in 2022. Other towns that are famous for their living nativity scenes include Custonaci in Sicily and the caves of Matera in southern Italy.

Nativity scenes for sale in Naples: In the very heart of the chaos that is Naples’ historical city center is found a street by the name of Via San Gregorio Armeno. The cavernous, pedestrian-only road is lined on both sides with dozens of shops offering both traditional nativity scenes and those with a distinctly Italian twist. While it’s possible to adhere to tradition and populate one’s own nativity scene with the shepherds, wise men and the Holy Family, many Italian families opt for more contemporary characters and backdrops. Politicians, entertainers of the moment and soccer players make themselves at home for the holidays in miniature reproductions of cafes, pizzerias, living rooms or market stalls. Keep an eye out for Pulcinella, the famous masked character who has come to represent Neapolitan culture, or the peculiar red horn amulets known as "curnicielli," believed to protect the wearer from bad luck. While Via San Gregorio Armeno understandably heaves with visitors during the holiday season, the shops remain open and their unique wares are available throughout the year.

Nativity scenes in Verona’s arena: For the past 40 years, nativity scenes have been set up in one of Verona’s most famous landmarks, its 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater. The sculptures, carvings, and oversize constructions are brought in from museums and private collections around the world. The annual display typically includes some 400 nativity scenes. Lighting, soundtracks and special effects help to show off the exhibits to full effect. The exhibition runs from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on most days through Jan. 23, 2022. Tickets are available online and cost 8 euros for adults and 5 euros for school-age children. Youngsters age five and under enter for free. Learn more at

Nativity scenes in Friuli Venezia Giulia: Italy’s northeast region bordering Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea offers some wonderfully diverse territory, from Alpine peaks to sandy shores. The some 4,000 nativity scenes that pop up there between November and January add joy and holiday spirit to the spaces they inhabit. To promote exploration of these sacred scenes, local tourism authorities have created a series of proposed itineraries known as "Giro Presepi." In 2020, the Piancavallo and Dolomite Fruilane itinerary, which passed through Aviano, included the nativity scene set up at Corte Marchi, near the cathedral square, as well as those inside the San Zenone Church and the Church of Santa Maria and Giuliana in the Castello D’Aviano. Among the recommendations for 2021 are found a talking nativity scene for children in Trieste and the floating nativity scene at Monfalcone, in which baby Jesus arrives by sea. For this year’s suggested itineraries, see


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