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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

The Italian Presepio is more than just a beautiful nativity scene

Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples is also known as Christmas Alley, due to the beautiful nativity scenes that are handmade by talented artists in the .



The Italian word Presepio or Presepe (meaning manger or enclosure) was used to describe the nativity scenes but in the streets of Naples, it now means any of the statues and scenes. Many Italians prefer to have a Presepio in their home rather than a Christmas tree. New figures are often added each year to the nativity, as a family tradition. They are also found in the month around Christmas in churches and many public spaces.


It was only from 1982 that Pope John Paul II erected a Christmas tree each year in the Vatican's St Peter's square.


The Presepio is thought to remind people that the focus of Christmas is Christ, and the scenes are often set up from early December and not packed away until late January or even February. Visiting various nativity scenes throughout Italy is a favorite thing to do for both locals and visitors. There are even several museums around the world where you can see the Presepio all year round.


I like the fact that a lot of the nativity scenes evolve. They are not static. For example, the three wise men only appear on January 6, the date it is estimated they arrived to see the newborn baby. The baby Jesus is only added at midnight on December 24.


The beginning of the presepio in Naples is thought to have started around the early 1700s. The elaborate and detailed figures are set in panoramas that resemble life in Naples.

There was once a temple dedicated to the Roman Goddess Ceres here. She was the goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility and motherly relationships. This is where we get the word cereal from (grain crops).


The skilled artists who make the nativity scenes are happy to have a chat with you as you admire their handywork. The workshops line the streets and are open every day of the year, not just in December. You can buy an entire nativity set or just the bits you want to add to your set. Cribs, figures, stars, angels, lights and animals (even monkeys) can be bought. Metal, wood, ceramic and terracotta are the most common ingredients used, and the quality and prices vary from shop to shop.


Little models of everyday village life such as a woman ironing or a baker going about his work abound. Some are electrified and have movement, such as a waterwheel turning. Recently, caricatures of celebrities, athletes, singers, actors, even politicians have become available. The streets here teem with these statues.


The details are amazing and can include waterfalls, houses, nature, animals

Curiously, the dress of the figures in the settings seems to be more 18th century Italian than first century Bethlehem.


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There are some characters and elements that many deem essential to the tradition:

  • Benino or Benito: In the Holy Scriptures this character represents the “sleeping people to whom the angels announce the coming of the Christ”. Originally represented by a sleeping shepherd, but can be any sleeping man.

  • Benino, the shepherd often sleeps among 12 sheep, to stand for the 12 apostles or the twelve months of the year.

  • Another figure is the Shepherd of Wonder, shown on his knees, with open arms in front of the Nativity. He is a symbol of admiration and childish amazement, free of sin, in the face of the miracle of birth and regeneration.

  • The wine cellar and Cicci Bacco: the wine represents the blood of Christ, given to the people for their salvation, while Cicci Bacco is a representation of pagan divinities.

  • The fisherman: Fish is the first symbol of the christians persecuted during the Roman empire. The character is a “fisherman of souls”.

  • The Hunter, Both the fisherman and Hunter represent the two activities of human survival and the opposing Death and Life.

  • The two comrades: Uncle Vincenzo and Uncle Pasquale represent Fat Tuesday and the Death, the two moments that open and close the period of commemoration of the death of Jesus before Easter time.

  • The Three Wise Men: originally represented on the back of three different animals, the horse, the dromedary and the elephant, they symbolize Asia, Africa, and Europe, that find Baby Jesus after a long journey and honor him.

  • Three female figures: 1) the Young Gypsy Woman with tattered clothes is able to predict the future. She is a sign of misfortune and pain yet to befall Jesus. 2) Stefania is a young virgin who was blocked by angels forbidding unmarried women to visit Our Lady. Stefania swaddled a stone pretending it was her baby and after Jesus' birth, the stone sneezed and became a child--Saint Stephen, whose birthday is celebrated on December 26th. 3) La Lavandaia represents the midwives who discovered after washing the Child, spread out the clothes of childbirth, white because of virginal birth.

  • In the Neapolitan presepio are found the Card Players "duie cumpare, zi' Vicienzo and zi 'Pascale", "The two cronies" are also nicknamed "the San Giovanni", with reference to the two solstices of December 24 and June 24.

  • The Monk is often set in a desecrating manner, representing the irony between the sacred and the profane.

  • The Harlot is a symbol of the carnal, as opposed to the purity of the Virgin. She is placed near the tavern, opposite to the Nativity.

  • The months of the year are represented as follows: January butcher or grocer; February seller of ricotta and cheese; March poultry man and bird seller; April egg seller; May represented by a married couple carrying a basket of cherries and fruit; June baker or miller; July tomato seller; August seller of watermelons; September seller of figs; October vintner or hunter; November chestnut seller; December fishmonger or fisherman

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