How An Italian Christmas Tradition Makes All the Difference in the World

Donna Wichelman Christmas, Holiday

If you’ve read my History and Travel Adventure blogs over the last several years, you know I’m fascinated by world history and relish opportunities to travel. Both have been a part of my DNA since I was a child and became even more pronounced when I attended an international college for my last two years of high school, the United World College of the Atlantic.

Wherever I go, I want to understand the people and the culture, which often translates into taking home a souvenir from that part of the world. The souvenir should represent something about the place and, ideally, be made by local artisans and craftsmen.

When we visited the Amalfi Coast in 2019, my husband and I toured an ancient paper mill where I enjoyed going through the papermaking process. We purchased two matching art pieces from their gift shop, which now hang in our home.

In last week’s blog, I talked about the Fontanini nativity from Italy I bought for my parents in 1975. As one might expect, Christmas is a much more religious celebration than a secular one in Italy, and the decorations reflect that culture. While much of the colorful festivities center around enjoying friends and traditional foods, nativities are fundamental to the observance of the holiday. You find them in every community and every square–smaller creches in the home and larger displays outdoors.

Fontanini Nativity, ca. 1975

The Fontanini family is arguably one of the most well-known artistic creators of nativities in Italy. The tradition began in the late nineteenth century in the village of Bagni di Lucca, Tuscany, when Emanuele Fontanini apprenticed with a different company, creating figures in the style of an Italian figurine artist, Lucchesi. In 1908, Emanuele established his first shop, and the company has remained in the family for four generations.

What makes the Fontanini nativities so distinctive? One expert says it’s their “beauty, attention to detail, and durability.” I can attest to all these things. The stables are made from natural wood and covered with moss. Mine has lost some of its moss over the last forty years, but the rustic wood provides a sense of the rudimentary surroundings in which Mary gave birth to the Christ child. In addition, each figurine is handcrafted and hand-painted by a talented team of sculptors and master painters in a two-year process that begins with a prototype.

Fontanini Creche

Mary, Joseph, and Christ Child

Once the family approves the prototype, artists create a beeswax form into which they pour a polymer resin. After the figurine is set and removed from the mold, each painter pays meticulous attention to details like the folds of a robe or facial expressions so that the personality of each figure comes to light. Today, a story card also comes with every figure and explains the biblical history behind each one, especially the life of Christ, and the artist who did the work.

In our contemporary world, anyone can purchase a Fontanini nativity in the United States on Amazon. But in the mid-1970s, when I attended school in Europe, the nativities had only become available here and were less common, making them truly a unique gift to bring home to my parents. Only in the last decade have I appreciated what that meant at the time. But even more than the value of the Fontanini nativity itself, I cherish a tradition that puts Jesus’s birth front and center in our festivities. After all, that is what Christmas is all about, and that makes all the difference in the world.

You can learn more about the Fontanini nativity sets at https://www.fontanini.eu/en/.