San Gregorio Armeno Street in Naples is known to collectors for its crêche figures. Photo: Angelafoto/iStock

We asked the UltraVilla team about Christmas traditions in their part of the world and got a charming postcard in response from Countess Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda, of The Best in Italy. In addition to providing her villa guests with every amenity you can think of, Simonetta often organizes special tours with top art historians, private museum visits, wine tastings, culinary sessions, music in the villas, sport excursions, shopping expeditions, and more. She writes:

“An important aspect of the holidays throughout Italy is the creation of the presepi, the nativity scenes that are displayed in every church and on many of the main piazzas. These can range from life-size terracotta figures to smaller handmade wooden statues. Whole villages are constructed in miniature, with moving parts and music. There are working fires, mills, and waterfalls, and thousands of characters. The area of San Gregorio Armeno, in Naples, is well known to collectors as entire shops are filled with figures and structures that one can purchase to make a precepe. Many of the towns throughout Italy also have special localized artisans who produce figures and crêche scenes in numerous different styles.”

The tradition of setting the Nativity scene in one’s own small village and populating it with local characters is not exclusive to Italy. A Provençal crêche is likely to include a fish monger pushing his cart, a baker carrying a basket of fougasses, a farmer’s wife with a chicken under her arm, a garlic seller, the village doctor, and the mayor. Originally made from breadcrumbs, plaster, wax, or crushed glass, the terra-cotta figures, called santons (“little saints”), have been created by some of the same families for generations. You can see their handiwork at the big santon fair in Marseille, which dates to the nineteenth century. The fair is organized by the santonniers and runs until December 31.