The tinsel’s packed away, Elf is back on the shelf, the mulled wine’s all gone, only orange creams left in the Quality Street tin. Yep folks, that’s well and truly it for another Christmas. If like me, you actually feel a pang of sadness packing away all the fun for another year, you’ll love this discovery. For tucked away in the heart of the historical centre of Naples in Italy is a special little place where it’s Christmas all year round. Hooray!
Via San Gregorio Armeno is a pretty 200-metre-long cobblestone pedestrian street, entirely full of shops dedicated to the traditional Neapolitan presepio, better known here as the Christian nativity scene. They’re produced by resident artisans who take the tradition seriously, many of them having passed the tradition down through generations. One of the historic shops on the street is Ferrigno, run by the Ferrigno family for more than 150 years.
The fact these nativity scenes decorate the shop windows all year round, has led to its nickname, Christmas Alley. Of course, in the weeks right before Christmas, Via San Gregorio Armeno is packed with Italian shoppers looking for the perfect addition to their existing presepio.
The tradition is said to date back to the 13th century when St Francis of Assisi wanted to recreate a manger scene in a cave in the Umbrian hills. Putting them in churches and houses became common in Naples in the 16th century, and more widespread in the 17th and 18th centuries, at which point people started incorporating figurines into the designs.
Today, they appear everywhere – in shop and home windows, public squares, even outside churches as living nativity scenes, featuring actors and often live animals surrounding the manger.
And just as Via San Gregorio Armeno is no ordinary Napoli shopping street; neither are the nativity scenes made here. Although you can buy traditional barn nativity scenes featuring the manger, Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, artisans play around with them, to create scenes that are more like works of art, some that make up entire villages!
You can also choose and customise every detail you bring into the scene – adding shops, houses, fountains with running water, gardens, lighting, and even tiny details, such as pieces of meat or loaves of bread!
Artisans also make figurines that represent every profession imaginable, both modern and historic. Beloved players on Naples’ football team are always available, as are popular musicians and members of the Italian government. You’ll see plenty of non-Italian personalities, too – including the Obamas, Prince William and Duchess of Cambridge Kate, Apple founder Steve Jobs, and even Muammar Gaddafi.
Some of the characters you can add have certain meanings, for example, the merchants represent different months of the year, like the watermelon seller for August. There’s an excellent explanation of all the details on this website.
To buy a presepio, the cost varies, the more elaborate the scene, the more it will be. Some pieces can start at just a few euro, but a complete nativity scene with intricate figures could easily cost a few thousand pounds. I imagine you could get totally obsessed creating your ideal presepio and adding to it. Also a great excuse for a trip to Naples each year!