The Presepe – a Christmas tradition in Naples

  • 1
  • December 16, 2015
Presepe, Naples

When you go to Naples, the guidebooks tell you not to miss Via San Gregorio Armeno (also known as Presepe Street), a street in the old city full of little shops selling nativity scenes.

Via San Gregorio Armeno Naples

The first time I went there I really didn’t understand it. I did see many shops selling small nativity dioramas and little figurines

Presepe shop Via San Gregorio Armeno Naples

But also things like this,

Presepe Via San Gregorio Armeno Naples

Which didn’t seem to fit at all. Without some context they can come across as a little weird …

It’s a very old tradition in Naples, apparently dating back to Saint Francis of Assisi’s commissioning of a Nativity scene in the 13th century. The traditional life sized wooden religious nativity scenes that were crafted for the church evolved into miniature terracotta figurines that people brought into their homes, and eventually the sacred and the ordinary collided, setting the Holy Family and the procession of the Magi alongside vignettes that portrayed contemporary life in 18th century Naples.

Presepe in Naples

The next time I visited Naples I went to the Museo di San Martino specifically to see the largest nativity scene in the world, Presepe Cuciniello.  It includes over 160 characters, 80 animals, 28 angels and over 400 miniature objects.

Presepe in Museo di San Martino Naples

It was there I understood why the Nativity scene doesn’t just consist of Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men. A whole village is created around the manger itself. And it doesn’t seem to matter if everything’s not built to the same scale (I’m really not sure why that is. My guess is that it’s added to over time and therefore built in an ad hoc manner)

Presepe detail, Museo di San Martino Naples

Presepe detail, Museo di San Martino Naples

These days every Italian family apparently has one, and starting December 8, they set up their own precepe inside their homes, taking great pride in creating very elaborate scenes with lighting, backdrops, running water and multiple figures. Hence the need for Presepe street where shoppers can pick and choose from miniature caged pigs, jugs of wine and even pizza ovens!

Presepe elements, Museo di San Martino NaplesPresepe elements, Museo di San Martino Naples

While on a tour of underground Naples I was chatting to the guide about the presepe, asking why none of them contained the baby Jesus. He told me it’s bad luck to put him there until Christmas Eve!


Merry Christmas everyone!

Until next time, safe travels,

The Travelling Pantaloni

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