Every year in the Christmas period many Sicily villages organize a living Nativity scene. Some of these are very famous and have a long tradition, as in Custonaci or Sutera, other ones are latest but as much interesting. Most of the living Christmas cribs offer a performance that includes not only the main characters of the Biblical story (Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Three Wise Men, shepherds), but even a lot of actors dressed in medieval costumes or representing tradesmen nowadays almost extinguished. Around the representation you can taste traditional wine and food.
In Italy the tradition of living Nativity scenes is so much ancient that it is supposed to have origin even in 13th century thanks to St. Francis of Assisi. In fact in 1223, authorized by Pope Honorius III, he recreated in the village of Greccio (Lazio area) the Nativity scene he had seen in Bethlehem in his pilgrimage to Palestine.
Visiting a Christmas crib is a suggestive experience because you feel absorbed into a merry and authentic atmosphere, as you were inside a movie setting.
Following an illustration of the best Sicily living Nativity scenes.
Custonaci Christmas crib has been held every year since 1981 in a perfect location: inside the natural grotto “Grotta Mangiapane”, surrounded by typical little houses. The town is located on a hill overlooking the sea in North-Western Sicily (Trapani area). The Custonaci representation is one of the best famous all over Italy and it is absolutely unmissable! There are more than 160 people who take part of the scene, someone performing the Holy Family, but many other ones are people truly working: you can view the tailor, the cobbler, the blacksmith, the barber… at work. It is a good chance to observe traditional trades and handcrafts, and to assist a “pupi siciliani” show (Pupi are the traditional Sicilian puppets) and taste genuine local food.
On the other side of Sicily, in Ragusa area, there is Cava d’Ispica, a gorge that was human settlement in prehistoric times. Rocky slopes, caves, grottoes, Neolithic necropoli and Christian catacombs are the amazing scenery of the Nativity scene and along the path you can discover several tradesmen nowadays almost extinguished: “u vuttaru”(the cooper), “u cannizzaru”(the cane artisan), “u curdaru”(the rope maker), “u sapunaru”(the soap maker), “u ferra cavaddi”(the blacksmith) and many other…
Another unmissable Christmas crib is represented in Gangi, a medieval village in Madonie mountains that in 2014 won the award “The most beautiful Italy Village”. The old town center is characterized by narrow streets, towers and stairs that become the setting of the Nativity scene. The representation is only 7 years old and is named “From Nazareth to Bethlehem” because people dress traditional Palestinian costumes and put on scenes of ancient Palestine, including Roman imperial army and the king of Judea “Herod” with his court. All the scenes are described by a voice-over while actors are silent.
Sutera Christmas crib (Caltanissetta area) is very engaging and it is worth a visit. Since 1999 the representation is held on the medieval Rabato quarter where almost all houses and people are involved. Strolling around the village you will run into several traditional tradesmen dressing costumes who show their activity and their handcraft. You will taste local food just made, like ricotta cheese, broad beans cream, legumes soup, boiled eggs and bread with olive oil accompanied by local wine. Then you will observe the shearer with his scissors, a woman who repairs broken dishes, the cobbler, the blacksmith who puts a horseshoe on a horse, women who mend clothes and prattle… while musicians gladden the path with accordions, zampognas and folkloristic songs.
In Balata di Baida (Trapani area) the Nativity scene is represented into an ancient courtyard surrounded by little uninhabited housed that in this occasion come alive and by typical Sicilian vegetation, like prickly pears and olive trees. As in other villages, here you will observe scenes of daily life in the Sicilian rural culture, including farm and handcrafted activities. Unfortunately this year the representation has not been held, but we will wait favorably for next edition.
Palazzolo Acreide hosts a Christmas crib that take place along a short routing ending in a natural grotto where the Holy Family takes refuge. Palazzolo Acreide (in Syracuse area) is a town built around a Norman castle, no longer extant. An earthquake in 1693 destroyed almost all of the city, which was slowly rebuilt in the following centuries under the name “Palazzolo Acreide”. Here, the late original Baroque style of architecture blends with 19th and early 20th century architecture. The ancient town named “Akrai” was founded by Greeks in 664 BC, but probably destroyed by the Arabs in the first half of the 9th century. The village is absolutely worth a visit.
Other Christmas cribs to mention positively are located in Agira (in Enna area), held for more than 20 years into the ruins of a medieval castle, and the one in Caltabellotta, a village at 1.000 meters above sea level in the mountains of Agrigento area. Montalbano Elicona and Castanea delle Furie (both in Messina area) host Nativity scenes that evoke the Bethlehem scenario. The first one is represented in an ancient quarter of the village, while the other one is held inside a Park of 4.000 square meters.