It is thought that St. Francis of Assisi created the first public nativity scene, or presepio, and since his time they have become a major part of celebrations throughout southern Italy. Less well known are those that decorate cities and towns on the north. In the same way, the tradition of open-air Christmas markets is usually associated with Germany and Switzerland – but these, too, are a major part of December traditions in the Alto Adige region.
Christmas in Lake Garda Towns
From mid-December to mid-January, the town of Bardolino, on Lake Garda’s eastern shore, displays a collection of presepi. So does Torri del Benaco and the town of Bussolengo, where an entire Christmas Village is set up. In addition to the gallery of presepi, there are decorated rooms to explore and a market of local crafts that include glass, flowers, sculpture, woodburning, toys, local wines and caramels. In Brenzone locals vie for the most elaborate scenes, which are displayed from December 1 until Epiphany (January 6).
In Peschiera, at the southern end of Lake Garda, from December 1 until Epiphany a nativity scene is set up in the lake, called Il Presepio del Lago. In Soave, just east of Verona, Presepi nella Cultura e nell Arte displays a collection of historic and contemporary crèche scenes.
Verona’s Creche Show
The largest, in fact perhaps the largest in northern Italy, is the Rassegna del Presepe in Verona’s Roman Arena, from December 1 to January 18. Exhibited inside the Arena’s underground passages are more than 400 manger scenes from all over the world, both antique and modern. The exhibit, arranged annually in cooperation with the city of Bethlehem with the support of UNESCO, is open daily from 9 am to 8 pm. Another collection of presepi is set up in the Duomo.
On December 13 Verona’s Piazza Bra is filled with stalls of holiday goodies and gifts for the Festa di Santa Lucia, as children and adults await the arrival of Santa Lucia with her crown of candles. On January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, Verona celebrates with colorful processions. Throughout the entire season, an antique carousel is set up in Piazza Bra for children to ride.
Christmas Markets in Northern Italy
The Alpine tradition of Christmas markets, which is observed in the Italian Dolomite cities of Bolzano, Trento and others to the north, seems to slide down the southern slopes of these mountains to Lake Garda. The town of Garda has one throughout December and until January 6, the most common dates for these. Riva has the largest of them, a beautiful sight as the sparkling lights on the town’s historic buildings and on the market stalls reflect in the water.
Throughout the castle-topped town of Malcesine, the Market of the Elves is highlighted by costumed elves that wander among the stalls full of crafts, decorations and foods. Soave’s beautiful Medieval Christmas Market offers typical handicrafts and local food specialties.