An hour south of Rome by train lies the crazy city of Naples or Napoli. It is one of the most lively and gritty cities that you’ll find in Europe. Sometimes it’s downright intimidating. But in the midst of the chaos is something unbelievably sweet, a street full of artists making nativity scenes for Christmas. Nativities in Naples are incredible, and a delightful treat to seek out.
Nativity Scene Origins
I, as most Catholics, grew up with a nativity scene that we’d set up every year. The plaster figures were painted by my mom before I was born and she still uses them now. I remember setting up the scene with my sister, using whatever embellishment I could find around the house to make it more interesting. Tinsel, garlands, real straw and even little twinkling lights have adorned our nativity scene. Not sure it was very accurate from a historical perspective, but it was always fun.
Little did I know then that I was doing something that’s been done for about 800 years. Tradition says that Saint Francis of Assisi was the first to come up with the idea of a nativity scene. Back in the 1200’s when he was teaching the word of God, he was given the title of Friar by the Vatican, which means “Free to Roam” and he did just that. Not a priest by title or nature, he wandered from house to house teaching the Bible in the local language. That was pretty radical back then, remember that mass was said only in Latin until the 1960’s.
One of Francis’ teaching tools was said to be a set of dolls that he used to illustrate stories, and that began the nativity scene craze that we still honor today. Some stories say that he used real people and animals to recreate the birth of Christ.
Italian Presepe Today
Most Italian families continue the tradition today by setting up a manger scene, presepe or presepio. Scenes are prepared to decorate the house for the December 8th holiday of the Immaculate Conception. This holiday celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary without sin–not the conception of Jesus, easy mistake to make. Italy loves Mary, the big Italian Mamma in the sky, and her December festa celebrates her with flowers, family feasts, and setting up her big scene in the manger. Baby Jesus is not in attendance on December 8, he hasn’t been born! The tradition in my house, as well as in Italy, is that he doesn’t appear in the crib until Christmas, where he remains until the scene is taken down after Epiphany.
Nativities in Naples
Nobody does nativity scenes like the Italians. And no Italian does the nativity like a Neapolitan, although believe me, they try. Along the street of San Gregorio Armeno in the heart of Naples, you find little shops selling all sorts of parts to create elaborate scenes.
The shops set up display scenes that span entire walls with hundreds of characters, some several feet high with flying angels. Some displays have moving parts and sounds.
I’ve even seen one with a water feature, a moving water wheel with a mill stone that moved! In Assisi some years ago I saw a nativity scene that took up an entire room, whirring with a cacauphony of lights, song and buzzing motors.
In every presepe scene there are the traditional characters, but also peasants, farmers, princesses and….Beyonce? The artists in Naples have recently diversified away from the biblical and added pop culture icons, politicians and sports stars. You may not recognize many of the modern figurines on display, though, they are often famous Italians that are found in tabloid stories.
The grandest, the mother of all nativity scenes in Naples is perched high above the city in the Monastery of Saint Martin. Surrounded by gorgeous views of the bay and Vesuvius, the elegant 14th century monastery has been converted into a museum. It houses an eclectic collection with many items from the time of the Bourbon domination 200 years ago. One whole room is dedicated to a single nativity scene. It’s more than 20 feet wide and 10 feet high, with more than 400 large characters. In true Naples style, go big or go home.
You don’t have to go to Naples in December to check out the workshops of the nativity scenes. The shops are open and busy all year round. Many of the figures are handmade right in the workshops and some will let you see the figures being assembled and painted. There are plenty of fakes and knock-offs, so check to make sure what you buy is made in Naples. You can buy a whole scene if you visit and have it shipped home, but it will cost you– the elaborate ones can run thousands of Euro, which makes sense considering the amount of labor involved. I think I’ll stick to my mother’s handmade one, even if the celebrity additions are tempting!.
It’s a good thing to see artists at work. It’s a better thing to see them working on a craft that is 800 years old in this modern age. Italians are keeping the nativity tradition alive, even if it may be a little strange to see Marilyn Monroe at the birth of Christ.
Take a walk with me along Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples: