Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Presepe
From the feast of the Immaculate Conception to the Epiphany, in Italy every house, every place, and every church has its own Nativity scene. To be honest, when I was a child my first love was the Christmas tree, with its dazzling lights and ornaments, but what really makes the Christmas holidays unique is Presepe. Since I have grown I’ve come to appreciate this. Whether you are religious or not, Presepe makes you feel the deep sense of Christmas.
The word itself, presepe, comes from the Latin “praesepe” and means “manger”, this is in reference to Jesus’cradle. Presepe is a focus on the birth of Jesus. Not the lights and glitter of the holiday, but a theatrical construction that reminds us of what we are celebrating. The first Presepe was created by San Francis in 1223, but it became a must-have during the year 1400 in the kingdom of Naples. In each house of the aristocracy, it was displayed as a huge lavish scene with no expense spared.
The Nativity Street in Naples and Its History
The Presepe became a more popular tradition in time and it has wide spread from the North to the South. The home of Italian Presepe is undoubtedly Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, where it’s Christmas throughout the year. Here handicraftsmen work every day to create miniature figures, houses, and mechanical items, such as waterfalls, windmills, bakers, or cheesemakers at work.
This street is one of the oldest in Naples, it has existed since the Classical era. During the Roman Empire, a temple to Ceres once stood here. Ceres was the goddess of agriculture and was frequently offered small terracotta figurines as a good omen for the harvest season. These figurines had been manufactured in the nearby workshop. In the 8th century, a church was built over the ruins of the temple by a group of nuns escaping from the Byzantine Empire. These nuns brought with them the relics of Saint Gregory the Armenian, because of this both the Church and the street took the name of the Saint. When the tradition of Presepe spread in Naples, artisans chose this street to showcase their creations, this wove together the pagan tradition of Ceres and the devotion to Saint Gregory.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Neapolitan Christmas Market?
Despite the fact that December is the best time to visit Christmas markets around the world, take my advice: consider visiting via San Gregorio Armeno at another time. The street of Nativity is a narrow and picturesque alley throughout the year but during the Days of Advent it is extremely congested. People are crammed together like sardines and it’s difficult to walk.
If you are planning to come in Naples to get all the materials you need to build your own Presepe or if you are simply curious, any other period of the year will offer you a more fulfilling experience. Far away from the busy or crowded days, you will have the opportunity to visit inside the craft workshops and to observe the Neapolitan artisans creating their miniature masterpieces. In addition, you will be free to walk slowly along the alley, appreciate, in your own time, all the fine details, and, of course, choose the best pieces for your Presepe.
Not Only a Christmas Market!
Thanks to its rich history, this street has much to offer. As you can imagine, the Saint Gregory church and its cloister are worth visiting. The alley itself is dominated by the bell tower. It serves as a connection between the church and the monastery. In addition, just up the alley, inside the Church of San Lorenzo there is an interesting archeological site. A modern glass stairway leads to a part of the Greco-Roman Neapolis. A large archeological excavation that has brought to light the “macellum”, the ancient remains of the market. Just around the corner, in Via dei Tribunali, there is the entrance to the Napoli sotterranea (Naples underground) that gives you the opportunity to experience a fascinating journey forty meters below the street among the tuffaceous stone cavities excavated in the Greek era and exploited as cisterns for the water supply of the city for approximately 23 centuries. If you are also interested in food culture, you can’t miss having a traditional pizza. In Via dei Tribunali there are many of the most popular Pizzerie in Naples: Sorbillo, Decumani, Dal Presidente. Take your pick. Wherever you go, it will be the best pizza you have ever eaten.