While shepherds watched, thieves stole from the crib in Naples church

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Two of Naples' most celebrated traditions - Christmas sentiment and larceny - came together disastrously when thieves broke into the church of St Nicholas of Charity in the city and stole 300 shepherds from an 18th-century nativity tableau. The figurines were said to be worth more than €1m (£670,000).

Showing a vestige of religious feeling, or superstitious fear, they left baby Jesus in the manger. The sleeping shepherd Benino, a fixture of every Neapolitan crib scene, was also allowed to continue his slumbers. But otherwise it was a clean sweep. When the parish priest, Don Mario Rega, discovered the robbery on Monday, there was little left but straw.

"They've carried me away, too," the priest lamented, his voice choked with emotion. "They've stolen the joy of the bambini who always flock to marvel at the spectacle of the nativity and the shepherds in their wonderful antique costumes. This robbery has dealt the umpteenth blow to the image of a city martyred by illegality. There is no respect any more for the values of Christmas."

Nativity scenes, known as presepe, are particularly popular in Naples, where they became all the rage in the 18th century during the reign of the Bourbon king, Charles III, who with his queen Amelia had a passion for making particularly grand and imaginative scenes.

The nativity itself is often only a fragment of the action in these tableaux, with great effort devoted to dramatic landscapes, processions and taverns. Famous names such as Diana, Princess of Wales and Osama bin Laden frequently show up in more contemporary versions. Artisans make the figures by hand in old workshops in the city centre.

All the figurines stolen were said to be "extremely rare and precious". Their costumes were made of velvet, silk, linen and damask. One theory is that the robbery was conducted on the orders of a collector.