Christmas in Marche: World’s Largest Live Nativity Scene, Vincigrassi and Cavallucci

For Christmas this year, NIAF is highlighting a few of Christmas traditions from each of Italy’s 20 regionsthat perhaps is carried on in your Italian American family or is a new tradition you’d like to start.

The town of Ancona in Marche, Italy

Marche is a hilly region in central Italy. The name of the region derives from the plural name of “marca”, originally referring to the medieval March of Ancona where the region at that time was a border or buffer zone between the Church and the Empire around 1100. Urbino, one of Marche’s major cities, was the birthplace of Raphael, as well as a major center of Renaissance history.

The main piazza in Urbino

Largest Live Nativity Scene in the World

Spanning 300,00 square meters (more than 984,000 sq ft) that includes the manger scene tucked into the Frasassi caves, the small Marche town of Genga has been hosting the largest live nativity in the world. Amici del Presepe is the association that organizes the and for a small fee that goes to charity, visitors can meet roughly 300 performers acting as shepherds, fishermen, peasants as they walk through the live nativity.

Even the Frasassi Sanctuary is part of the tour, which is a stone church inside the caves where visitors also have the chance to interact with local carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, cobblers, sculptors, potters, embroiderers and tailors. All of them working with their old professional tools.

Frasassi Sanctuary

Although cancelled this year, the Genga Live Nativity takes place twice a year, once on December 26 which is St. Stephen’s Day and again a few days later before the new year. Since its inception in 1981, the nativity has been visited by more than 380,000 people.

Photos of Live Nativity Courtesy of Amici del Presepe

Other nativity scenes in Marche are at the Saint Nicola’s Church in Tolentino where more than 400 terracotta figurines tell the story of Jesus and St. Nicholas, as well as a live nativity in Grottammare, a town that overlooks the Adriatic Sea where live performers are scattered around the small street of the village. Grottammare has three performances usually with one on December 26 and the other two in January.

Christmas Day Staples: Vincisgrassi and Cavallucci

Vincisgrassi is a special lasagna with parmesan cheese, besciamella and ragù of mixed meat that hails from Marche. Vincisgrassi is different than the typical lasagna because of the meat used, including chicken livers, hearts and sweetbreads.

The history of vincisgrassi is said to come from when a cook from the Marche town of Ancona prepared the dish in honor of the Austrian general Alfred von Windisch-Graetz who led the fight of the Austro-Russian-Turkish troops against the Napoleonic troops and won in the siege of Ancona in 1799. The general apparently appreciated the dish, which therefore took his name. The term “vincisgrassi” derives from the simplification and Italianization of the name Windisch-Graetz.

In addition, a famous filled cookie from Marche is cavallucci, which is named that because its shape resembles horse legs. Cavallucci is very typical in the cities of Cingoli and Apiro but is also common in other places. Cavallucci’s filling varies and can be done with a single or combination of the following: jam, chocolate, raisin, almonds, hazelnuts, pine seeds, coffee, candied fruits, and liquors.

Stay tuned for more Christmas in Italy posts! If you want NIAF to share a tradition, email us a description at

This entry was posted in Christmas in Italy, Cooking, Culture, Food, History, Italian, Italian Food, Italy, Marche, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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