Joe Distoli of Bluffton shows a visitor the presepio, or extended nativity village, set up in his home workshop. Distoli’s grandfather first displayed the presepio in 1932, followed by Distoli’s father in the 1980s. Distoli has restored the figures and built new structures for his display. TIM WOOD

When 4-year-old Joe Dastoli posed for a photo for a newspaper photographer in 1954, he had no idea of the importance behind his grandfather’s figurines that were also being pictured.

Now, 67 years later, Dastoli is focused on keeping a family tradition alive by restoring and adding to his grandfather’s collection.

“That picture, it’s one of my earliest memories. Now, I’m honored to bring this Bethlehem village tradition alive,” Dastoli said. “It’s connecting four generations of our family.”

Joe is the namesake of Joseph Dastoli, who immigrated to the U.S. from Filadelphia, Calabria, in 1921 at the age of 18. He was a craftsman and built wrought iron gates as a way to make a living. One of his dreams was to buy a house and be able to display his Bethlehem village.

Tracing its origins to Southern Italy in the 1300s, the presepio, or nativity scene, is a deep-seated religious tradition in Italy to celebrate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Joseph had 3-inch-tall figurines made in Naples, and in 1932, he first achieved his dream, proudly building and displaying his village in his living room in Stamford, Conn.

The installation grew each year, as did the following of neighbors amazed by the detail in the village. His work drew the attention of the Stamford Advocate, who sent a photographer to the family’s Martin Street home in 1954 and asked young Joe to be in the picture. Soon after, Joseph stopped displaying his presepio.

Joe’s father Michael (Joseph’s son) reignited the village tradition in the 1980s, adding his own touches.

Michael too landed in the Advocate, displaying many of the 3-inch-tall handmade shepherds, mill workers and gift bearers that his father had brought from Naples.

Michael passed away 10 years ago, and after the funeral, the family gathered his possessions. Joe brought home a number of boxes he never went through for years.

“We just kind of forgot about them. I don’t think we were ready at first to really go through anything,” he said. Joe built a career in women’s footwear and made many trips to Italy as part of his work. In 2000, he bought a number of hand-painted figurines from Sicily, thinking someday he’d start his own village. These figures had the terracotta build of his grandfather’s figurines but added fabric for the clothing.

When he and wife Marianne finally went through the boxes, they discovered the family village pieces, including many from the 1930s from his grandfather. When he finally retired last December, Joe made it his mission to restore the figurines and build his own village in his Hampton Hall home – close to 30 years since his Dad last displayed the presepio.

The couple were born in Stamford but moved to Bluffton 26 years ago, moving from Moss Creek to Belfair to Hampton Hall, where he has the perfect workshop room off the garage to showcase his work.

Over the course of the year, with fits and starts, Dastoli put over 1,000 hours into building his own two-tiered village using Styrofoam, wood, modeling clay and other natural materials. He began on top, carving Styrofoam to look like weathered brick and cobblestone.

Next was the vineyard, complete with grapes in a bucket tub and a pergola with moss on top. Next was the bakery with stone oven, then a bit of temple remains reminiscent of Greek and Roman times. Then came the manger with the holy family, a fruit and vegetable stand, a farm area with cows, and a shepherd with his flock.

Marianne suggested a bridge and pond for their fisherman figurine. Houses were built to fill the landscape, with cardboard roofs rippled to resemble terracotta tiles and doors made from an intricate weave of popsicle sticks.

He restored missing arms and legs to the figures from the 1930s and 1950s with a fresh coat of paint to go with his Sicily finds, more than 80 figurines in all. His grandson, 9-year-old Vincent, even helped craft some of the goods for the vegetable stand.

“This is to honor my grandfather and our heritage. It’s really special what he brought here and kept alive when he came to America,” said Dastoli, who admitted it was hard not to tear up a bit as he was constructing his own presepio. “My grandfather taught me so much. He made the time for me. He was a kind and gentle soul, just a wonderful man.”

This is not the only artwork that Joe has made through the years. He has also made a series of ceramic portraits of family dogs through the years. But this is by far the most time he’s ever taken for an art project.

“It’s just a labor of love. And to see the reaction from the neighbors we’ve shown, it really brought home how my grandfather must have felt displaying his presepio in 1932,” Dastoli said.

The tradition is to begin the display on the night of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8. The baby Jesus is added to the display on Christmas Eve. Joe’s grandfather would take the village down after The Epiphany of the Lord, 12 days after Christmas. His dad would leave the village up until after Easter.

“I think I’m going to follow my dad’s path there,” he said.

Now that he has wowed his neighborhood, the question is what can Joe add to the village next?

“Oh, there’s plenty to do. I haven’t added any lights yet, especially to the Star of Bethlehem,” Joe said. “I’ve used acrylics to fabricate a lot of the moss and the weathering. My grandfather used to pick real moss. But you’ve got to spray that every day to keep it alive. Jury’s out on that but I might try it just around the shepherds for the flock.”

He already hollowed out space in the innards of the houses to allow for wiring. And there are a few tricks that the artists in Sicily showed him on animating the figures.

“They could see how much this meant to me,” he said. “That’s all I want out of any of this, to honor my family and celebrate the true spirit of Christmas.”

And now, he’s the third generation to display his work to the masses in the newspaper.

“Who knows, maybe Vincent takes this up 30 years from now and get his work shown too,” he said. “It’s an incredible through line right to my family roots in Calabria. I loved my work and it took me around the world. But I think I’ve found a passion to keep me out of Marianne’s hair too much in retirement.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.