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Italy's most beautiful nativity scenes are the highlight of Christmas

23 December 2022

5 minutes

Travelling in Italy at Christmastime also means discovering the tradition of nativity scenes. The cribs of Naples and Campania are known all over the world, but the tradition of nativity scenes is widespread throughout the Italian peninsula, from towns to small villages, and it combines all-Italian creativity and devotion.

Here is a guide to Italy's most original nativity scenes, authentic masterpieces that promise a moving experience.

Credit to: Archivio fotografico Apt Servizi

The nativity scene along the canals of Comacchio

In Comacchio from 4 December 2022 to 8 January 2023 you can discover one of the most renowned nativity scenes in the Ferrara area and the entire Emilia Romagna region. The setting exploits the uniqueness of the lagoon territory, which is crossed by a network of canals. The nativity scene is set on the water under the arches of festively lit bridges. To make sure you don't miss the best of it, simply follow this itinerary: Trepponti, then Ponte Pasqualone, Ponte San Pietro, Ponte del Teatro, Ponte degli Sbirri and Ponte del Carmine, ending at the Comacina boat by the Canale Maggiore, in Via Fogli. Off the water, there are more nativity scenes to see, in particular the one in the Basilica of San Cassiano. And here, in Comacchio, the Christmas market is also on the water, in Via Fogli and throughout the historic centre.

In Cesenatico, the floating nativity scene

The setting is the Leonardesco Canal Port. This is where the nativity scene is set up every year in Cesenatico, a delightful resort on the Romagna Riviera. The classic figures are placed on boats in the Floating Section of the Maritime Museum, statuettes forged by craftsmen from Swiss pine, cloth for the clothing and metal mesh for the intricate drapery. Stop to admire them: among the 50 subjects you will recognise the Holy Family and the Three Wise Men, St James, who is the patron saint of the town, the puppeteer and fishermen, the piadina maker and the sailors.

The Maritime Crib lights up on 4 December and the show runs until 15 January 2023. Grab a front row seat on the quay and choose the sunset hours, when the boats are bathed in lights. At that moment the winter sea shimmers and the crib is embraced by beams of light, letting you appreciate every detail. You too will float in the enchantment of Christmas.

Credit to: Archivio fotografico Apt Servizi

The sand crib in Bellaria Igea Marina

Perhaps you are already familiar with the Adriatic Sea and its coastline, but you have never imagined that the fine sand can be transformed into a nativity scene. And yet this happens in Bellaria Igea Marina, a town in the province of Rimini, in Emilia Romagna. The nativity scene is there, by the sea, where life-size sand sculptures created by a team of artists stand. The Holy Family is depicted in scenes of everyday life, surrounded by shepherds and peasants; in the background are buildings and churches, also moulded from sand. From 8 December 2022 to 8 January 2023, the beach of Bellaria Igea Marina awaits you for a unique experience. 

The itinerary of the living nativity scenes in Emilia Romagna, evidence of fervent devotion of the people

In Rivalta on Christmas Eve night, 120 participants stage the Nativity, in a procession that ends with the Holy Mass. In Reggio Emilia, the living nativity scene comes to life in Piazza San Prospero on Sunday 18 December, from 4 pm, while in Fanano on Saturday 24 December, the Nativity and Ancient Craftsmen's representation is staged along the streets of the village, and is repeated on 5 January 2023 with the procession to mark the end of the festivities.

In the town of Classe, the procession departs from the centre on Christmas Eve at 11.45 p.m. and arrives at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare in Classe where midnight mass is celebrated; on the 5th, in the afternoon, the Three Wise Men laden with gifts also arrive. In Montefiore Conca, the living nativity scene is scheduled on three dates: Monday 26 and Thursday 29 December from 5 to 7 p.m., Wednesday 28 from 8.30 to 10 p.m. The ancient village is one of the most beautiful in Italy and its age-old setting is perfect for hosting a parade of shepherds with their animals, pipers and artisans. 

Rome and the Nativity in its true essence

Discovering all the nativity scenes in Rome could be the perfect itinerary for a tour of the capital. The bond between the city, its churches and the Nativity is so sacred that it deserves to be celebrated in every form.

The Colonnade of St Peter's, as well as one of the most impressive Christmas trees, is home to the original works of the 100 Nativity Scenes in the Vatican, in different styles and materials. A few steps away from St Peter's, the AMA premises host the Nativity Scene of the Waste Disposal Workers: populated by no less than 270 characters, it is made entirely of masonry and reconstructs Palestine 2000 years ago. Finally, Piazza di Spagna also has its own nativity scene. Set up by the Municipality of Rome on the famous Spanish Steps, the 'Pinelliano' is modern and uses figures and settings inspired by characteristic folk scenes.

Then there are the Basilicas that hold real treasures. There is the Nativity by Arnolfo di Cambio in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the first inanimate nativity scene in history and a true artistic masterpiece, and the 18th-century monumental Neapolitan nativity scene, of surprising dimensions and with statuettes made of wood and terracotta, in the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Via dei Fori Imperiali: two absolute must-sees. But if you love the genre, the Church of Santa Maria in Via, the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, the Church of Santa Maria dell'Anima, and the Church of San Marcello al Corso also provide the setting for very old nativity scenes with a fascinating history.

Credit to: AMA s.p.a.

In Rivisondoli, the living nativity scene amid snow, lights and music

Imagine a snowy landscape illuminated by torches and made all the more magical by soft music in the background. This dreamlike vision becomes reality in Rivisondoli, located 140 km from L'Aquila, when a living nativity scene, one of the oldest and most famous in Italy, is staged on 5 January 2023 at 6 pm.

The Abruzzo village lends itself perfectly to hosting the nativity play due to its prime location, 1,300 metres above sea level on the Prato Plateau, in the spectacular region of the Altipiani Maggiori d'Abruzzo.

At Piè Lucente, where the living nativity scene takes place, you will see shepherds descending from the mountains, women in costume leaving their homes and the Three Wise Men arriving from afar, all on their way to honour the Baby Jesus portrayed by the village's most recently born child. Joseph and Mary care for him in a hut guarded by angels. The event unfolds in tableaux, accompanied by an off-stage voice narrating the various stages of the Gospel story to the spectators. 

Credit to: Regione Abruzzo

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