Do you know how important is the Nativity Scene in the Italian culture?

Well, I daresay that the Presepe (Nativity Scene) is the symbol of Christmas in the Neapolitan tradition.

If you have ever been to Naples, in Italy, you must have gone to San Gregorio Armeno: a lovely street in the city centre famous for the small artisanal shops where you can find amazing hand made figurines for the Nativity Scene.

Do you know anything about its story?

The custom of setting up huge Nativity Scenes in churches started in 1283. In that year Arnolfo di Cambio, a sculptor, made the first one in Rome including the 8 main figurines, the Nativity and the Three Kings.

Since then, this tradition quickly spread across the Regno di Napoli (Naples’Kingdom). In 1500 the Nativity Scene became a proper folk’s tradition and from 1600 the figurinai, artisans specialised in figurines, started introducing daily life scenes and reached the peak of their creativity in 1700.

Nowadays the traditional Presepe is set in that period.

nativity scene

What does setting the Nativity Scene up mean?

In Naples it is a proper ritual, a magic time of the year when every family member contributes to it. Every aspect of life is included in it: Good and Evil, Paganism and Christianity, Paradise and Hell.

Also, behind every character there is a precise symbology. For example, Ox and Donkey represent Good and Evil: two perfectly balanced forces that ensure equilibrium in the world.

The eternal fight between Good and Evil is embodied by Ciccibacco, a pagan among Christians. Benino is the most important character: according to the legend, the whole Nativity Scene is a dream of this sleeping shepherd, normally put on top on the scene.

He would be the allegory of the sleeping and lazy mankind that can get close to the divine only in dreams.

But the traditional ones are not the only figurines!

If you visit San Gregorio Armeno in Naples you can also find funny figurines representing contemporary celebrities and politicians!

Have a look at the amazing Presepe Napoletano here. Heading to Naples? Visit this ancient artisanal shop!

And if you are in Christmas mood, read more about this festivity here.


Don’t forget to have a look at our Italian group courses and individual lessons following this link.