Saturday, December 16, 2006

Crib Street

Let one thing be said for Italy at Christmastime: these people love their nativity scenes. So much so that I would go as far as to say that a nativity scene, known in Italian as presepe and sometimes by the French word crèche, is more common than a Christmas tree in many Italian homes.

The scene can be as simple as a little manger, to very elaborate, with moving figures, lights, mini-waterfalls—the works.

Something you’ll notice if you see a presepe in a home before Christmas is that the baby Jesus isn’t actually in the nativity scene—he makes his appearance in correspondence with his birth, ie, Christmas Eve. Placing the baby Jesus in his crib is a task usually entrusted to a child in the house and is a big event!

Probably nowhere is more famous for this tradition than Naples, where every year you can wander Via San Gregorio Armeno and be transported to a world of nativity scenes and all the fixin’s you’d ever need to make the most elaborate presepe you can dream up (hence "Crib Street") . On my recent day trip, we wandered onto this street purely by accident, and I discovered that it’s next to impossible to come out on the other end empty-handed. We bought a birthday present for a friend of ours who collects pieces (only from Naples though—he’s a “presepe snob”) for his presepe, which is quite impressive and gets more so every year. I also couldn’t resist parting with €4 to buy a kit for playing Naples bingo, with wooden markers and illustrated cards. Naples has a fascinating tradition that revolves around symbols and their associated numbers (which can then be used to play the lottery), which I would like to take up in a future post.

Something I think is also interesting to point out is that the presepe doesn't necessarily have to have a religious theme. Some presepi can simply represent country scenes or village scenes. I'm not sure if the baby Jesus is actually obligatory in these types of Italian presepe...does anyone know?

Well, as Dick Callaway, mayor of St. Albans, West Virginia, said: "It's not easy to put a light-up representation of a baby in a small manger scene, you know."

So for now let’s just wander down Via Gregorio Armeno and the surrounding area and see what we can come up with.

It's a pretty crowded streetkeep an eye on your belongings!

There's a Bambino Gesù for every style and every budget

The lady seated on the left is freelancing it with a stall just off of Crib Street

The foundation for the presepe can be quite detailednotice the lights inside

A fun part of the tradition is adding on new pieces each year—the possibilities are endless

Of course it wouldn't be Naples without a little of that Neapolitan ingenuity. Every year some of the most memorable moments of the year are transformed into presepe figurines. Remember this one? Something to do with a sister?

If you want to read more about presepi, here's an article from About.com. My pal Avery, another americana a Roma, also wrote about her take on this Italian tradition here.

I probably won't be able to get around to writing a post this year about the living nativity scene at St. Peters. But here's an article about this year's tree, the tallest ever. And here is some more information about where to see presepi in Italy.

Do any of you set up a presepe for Christmas? I don't have one but I'd like to start one day when we have children. I think it must be a fun tradition for them and for families to do together.

What are your Christmas, or holiday season, traditions?

17 comments:

Gattina said...

My husband is Italian, from the Lake of Garda. Our first Christmas together was funny he never had a Christmas tree and I never had a presebio. When he put the thing up I thought it would never end and when it was finished, it took the space of a double bed ! There were houses, trees, animals people a whole village, and then a big stable with the family in. And no room were left for my tree ! So he had to squeeze his presebio to a one person bed size and then I could put my tree up ! But I have never heard about a presebio without a baby even if you are not religious it's just part of.

sognatrice said...

We don't have a presepio yet, as the OH tells me we simply don't have enough space. After seeing some in his friends' houses, um, yeah, he's right! I used to have one in the US, a Precious Moments theme (cheesy but cute); in my family, the tradition was to put Jesus in the manger only on Christmas morning, so once we do get our own nativity scene built (could take years, Shelley, so you better start now!), I'd like to continue that part of it. Other than that, we haven't really established any other Christmas traditions yet--it's only our second together. I'm working on it ;)

Rose in Cali said...

Intesting info., as always! But my favorite is the presepe di calcio. It captures that very pregnant moment before Zidane commits the king of all headbutts!

By the way, Shelley, I recommended your blog to my Italian professor (a die-hard Roman)--who will pass it along to her other students. :-)

Shirley said...

In Naples the figurines are big business, Domenico tells me that some sell for 1000's euro uhmm....We don't do the presepe, though I agree it always nice to do when you can get children involved.

East of Oregon said...

love this post!

Moon Martini said...

Every year my family had the tradition of decorating (or trimming) the tree and putting up the Nativity. The Nativity is so old and fragile now. There are pieces missing from years of children playing with the various pieces. However, as an adult, I'm still fascinated by it. It holds a lot of memories for me.
I also remember my Mom putting on Christmas music as we decorated the tree. It was always the "The Little Drummer Boy", "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", and various Elvis xmas songs.

Of course, can't forget the food. Baking Christmas cookies in shapes of snowmen and trees with sprinkles on top!


Shelley, I had to laugh at the Italian soccer guys in the Nativity!!!
Fantastic post as always.

Expat Traveler said...

oh wow - that looks like such a fun place to visit. So much culture!

FinnyKnits said...

Wow. That is serious business. I remember the Tour de Nativity Scenes we went on during my first visit to Rome over the holidays. Incredible! I had no idea this was carried over into homes in addition to all the scenes at the churches. Personally, I'd prefer a nativity scene any day over fugly Christmas lights draped over the front yard shrubs.

Excellent post - I feel like I'm learning so much about Italy through your blog.

However, that will not keep me from coming back to visit. No, true Rome has to be experienced with my mouth. And not in a lewd way.

mad said...

the presepio looks like its serious business in Italy....it would get costly after a while



.

tracie b said...

i saw the head-butting presepe! we were carried off in a human current before i could get a picture though...

avery said...

Whoa, Naples is serious Presepe business. You really captured the essence of the presepio in those pictures. The mother of a friend of ours is a presepio snob and always goes to Naples to buy the best of the best. It's beautiful, and everyone enjoys the tradition (even if her children are now in their 30s)!

Anonymous said...

Howdy-

Our tradition is to decorate the house with tacky lights. My excuse as to 'why' can be seen at homepage.mac.com/azcraigfamily

They like it.

Cool blog Shelley!

Jeff
Gilbert, AZ

Anonymous said...

Howdy-

Our tradition is to decorate the house with tacky lights. My excuse as to 'why' can be seen at homepage.mac.com/azcraigfamily

They like it.

Cool blog Shelley!

Jeff
Gilbert, AZ

chris & erin said...

This is great! What a fun tradition. I'm looking forward to our first Christmas in Italy next year :)

Mrs. Kitten said...

Hello, Shelley! I recently found your blog and this post was so neat to me because my husband grew up in St. Albans, West Virginia. Additionally, we will be visiting Rome in February 2007 and I have really enjoyed reading your posts to get an idea of what's it will be like. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

John said...

Really interesting blog and great photos. I hope to visit Rome someday.

Banshee said...

At the local Lebanese restaurant, they have a big elaborate Nativity scene with waterwheels, streams, etc. It is underneath the restaurant's Christmas tree. (And it looks to me as if the Christmas tree is actually jacked up about 3 feet above the floor, to provide the necessary Nativity clearance.)