Naples – Not Your Mama’s Nativity in San Gregorio Armeno

Christmas time in Naples Italy  also means presepe time.

In this fancy and contradictory city, mostly famous for chaos, pizza and whole families riding a motorbike representing the Nativity is more than a tradition: it is an activity, made by artisans who prepare for it the whole year.

The word “Presepe”, in Naples slang, or “o’ Presebbio” comes from Latin praesepe, meaning manger.  Originally it represented the classical  Nativity, with Maria, Josef and the Holy Child in his crib, warmed by the ox and the donkey.

In the 17th Century, the scene was expanded to represent activities that operated daily in the village, and ordinary life scenes, like bakeries, the market, fruit sellers, the crowd, sheep we included. Everything that people wanted to show, over time becoming more and more detailed.

Characters are both traditional and new, and are added as  required. For example, there are people from the religious tradition, such as the Three Kings, or Stefania (a virgin that visited the Holy  Child despite it being forbidden for virgin women: she disguised a stone as a baby to go there and, once in front of  Mary, the stone sneezed and became Saint Stephen, who is celebrated on December 26th).


The profanity of Naples also allows for heathen symbols to be represented; there is then the gypsy that predicts the future, in this case the tragedy of Christ (she is depicted with a basket full of iron tools).

There is Cicci Bacco, pagan god of wine, opposed to the Eucharist; there is the prostitute, contrasting with the Virgin (and because of this, positioned behind the Nativity, close to the village’s tavern).

During recent years, people started to create characters of Public Figures: a great example is Maradona’s statuette, during his golden age!


Furthermore, the activities of the village are significant. Inside the presepe there is a character for every month of the year, linked with a profession. Bbviously July is the tomatoes seller,  October is the vintner and January is the butcher. All of them are located inside the market, one of the more important places inside the scene.

Each place symbolizes something, linked with magic or religion; the bridge means the transition and  it is a pagan symbol, the bakery refers to the Holy bread and wine, and the river is the Holy born, recalling the fetal liquid.

Often a church is included in the scene, even if it’s anachronistic, and, obviously, there is a tavern, because the Gospels narrate that none of these gave hospitality to Josef and Mary, when she was about to give birth.

I am narrating all these notions about Naples’ tradition because in this city there is a street, called San Gregorio Armeno, in Spaccanapoli district, completely dedicated to presepe‘s construction, sale and exposition.

In San Gregorio Armeno, in fact, artisans work the whole year to be ready for Christmas time, to expose and sell their characters, buildings, and accessories for presepe‘s creation.

It is typically Neapolitan to go to San Gregorio Armeno during Christmas holidays.  It is an obliged stop and, for this reason, the street is always really busy. It is possible anyway to visit it during the year, to observe how the presepe is made. Despite the work in progress, it is very interesting to guess which new characters will be made and ask the artisans the meaning of each symbol.

Walking through the stands it is difficult not to be astonished by colors, manufacturing, creativity and technicality of what is exposed. If you are looking for something to smarten up your presepe , it’s sure you will find it! There are all kind of  stables and houses for Nativity, all the mills or bridges and also mechanical items like waterfalls, but also the robotic pizzaiolo that bakes pizza!

Obviously, as I mentioned before, all the VIP of the moment are disguised as shepherds, with all the details about the motivation of their fame…good or not.

To be transformed into a  presepe statuette has become a milestone for political and sport VIPs and every year the new statues are fervently waited for!

The tradition of Neapolitan presepe is therefore up to date, and in this coexistence of sacred and profane, old and new, traditional and extravagant holds true to the soul and expression of Naples.

Photo Credit:
Mariateresa Toledo

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