The Italian Almanac

Michael Jackson

Crib Frenzy

A bloody-faced Silvio Berlusconi, Pope Benedict XVI with his arm in a sling and pop star Michael Jackson were among the crop of nativity scene figurines on sale in Naples last year as Italy once again went crib crazy. The premier has provided special inspiration for the Naples craftsmen who each year create models of celebrities and politicians that have made the headlines alongside more traditional statuettes such as Mary, Joseph and the wise men.

Shoppers could pick up a gory model of Berlusconi with blood dripping onto his suit lapels - marking the occasion when he was hit in the face at a political rally in Milan as well as figurines of a trinity of women who have helped fuel scandals involving the premier.

A model of the pope commemorated the tumble he took while on holiday last summer, breaking his arm, while another statuette showed former Lazio governor Piero Marrazzo, who resigned in October after a sex scandal involving transsexuals, wearing a lipstick-stained shirt.

Christmas cribs have always stirred up strong feelings. In 2006, Catholic politicians expressed outrage after two centre-left Italian MPs placed two pairs of embracing Barbies and Kens in the nativity scene of the Italian parliament's lower house in support of the rights of same-sex and unwed couples in Italy. The same year, Bologna city council's crib was at the centre of a heated row following the inclusion of a naked figurine representing a famous dead Italian porn star, Moana Pozzi.

Elaborate cribs, sometimes containing dozens of figures of people and animals, are a standard Christmas feature in millions of Italian households as well as churches and public buildings.

St Francis of Assisi is believed to have created the first 'living' nativity scene in 1223 using live actors, and Italy also boasts the world's oldest surviving crib, created by the Gothic sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio for Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore Church between 1290 and 1292.