More than a market, a whole part of the city comes alive at Christmas time—the narrow alleys of San Gregorio Armeno and San Biagio dei Librai are crammed full of stalls selling nativity scene statuettes.
Setting up a nativity scene—presepe in Italian and o' presebbio in Neapolitan—is a historic tradition in Naples. First recorded in the 11th century,
the presebbio became a sumptuos display of both religious and secular figures
by the 17th and 18th centuries.
Today, Neapolitan artisans make the best nativity scene statuettes in Italy,
usually out of terracotta, and skills are passed down from father to son—there are several third or fourth
generation makers. Statuettes range from classic nativity characters—the Virgin
Mary, Saint Joseph, baby Jesus, the Three Wise Men—to figures of the Neapolitan
tradition—the fisherman, the wine maker and the two old friends, zi’ Vicienzo
and zi’ Pascale—and even politicians and international stars, including current
Prime Minister and his main opponent.
Indeed, it is considered an honour for an Italian celebrity to make it into the
presebbio. Beyond stocking up on statuettes and nativity accessories, however, you can
also buy ceramics, embroidery, glass and decorations at the handmade and collectables
Christmas market in Villa Comunale, Via Caracciolo, for the month of December.
While in Naples, don’t forget to visit the Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore (for tiny nativity scenes set inside walnut shells); Piazza San Gaetano (for living nativity scenes) and the Museo di San Martino, which hosts Naples’ largest collection of nativity scenes and statuettes, from
the colossal Cuciniello to the elegant Giustiniani and a precious silver and coral
one (visit www.inaples.it for more information).