Amidst the glare of the Dyker Heights lights, one humble Christmas tribute stands out.
A local in the area known for its high-voltage holiday displays has gone against the grain, building a 14-foot Neapolitan-style nativity scene populated with hundreds of tiny figurines every year. The maestro of manger scenes said he has amassed the dozens of five-inch terra-cotta figures over four decades, and building the nativity — called a “presepio” in Italy — takes weeks each year. But he remains humble about the display.
“I’m no artist,” said John Miniero. “I’m just good with my hands. You think this is amazing? In Naples — fuggedaboutit — the whole neighborhood is like this.”
The retired baker fabricates all the scenery himself, using a wire frame, cork bark, found foliage, and a whole lot of glue, he said.
Practitioners credit Saint Francis of Assisi with the first presepio, Miniero said. The displays came into fashion in the 18th century, when Neapolitan nobility began commissioning artisans to create elaborate nativity displays, according to Lou Barella, who lectures on Italian culture.
Now Italians prize presepi over all other Christmas displays, said one passerby whose husband hails from the old country.
“This is more important to them than Christmas trees,” said Renee Mascara, who drove from Staten Island to show her mother the presepio.
But for Miniero, it’s not about piety.
“I’m religiously challenged, but I love this,” said Miniero, an atheist. “I must have been into 100 churches, but nothing stuck.”
Instead, the presepio is a connection to his Italian roots. Miniero emigrated from the Italy’s Sorrento region in 1957 when he was just 12 years old. His father built the displays from papier-mâché when Miniero was young, and now Miniero keeps the tradition alive in his own style, he said.
He started displaying the homemade nativity in his bakery 40 years ago, and when he sold the business in 2001, he started showing the work in front of his home. Now he builds presepi for friends and family, and he once crafted one for Coney Island’s Gargiulo’s Restaurant. Hurricane Sandy destroyed the nativity when floodwaters filled the Coney Island institution, but this year Miniero lent the restaurant another creation from his private collection.
“It’s such a part of our heritage, and I love it,” Gargiulo’s co-owner Nino Russo said.
Miniero’s home sports the typical Christmas lights and reindeer lawn ornaments as well, but he leaves those decorations to his wife, she said.
“He won’t go there,” Marie Miniero said. “He just wants to work with his nativity.”
Tour buses carrying gaping onlookers through the elaborately lit neighborhood only occasionally stop at Miniero’s house, but he said the lights don’t hold a candle to handmade tributes like his presepio.
“You spend $5,000, $10,000, but at the end of the day, they’re just lights,” he said.