While Christmas trees often decorate Italian piazzas in December, those accoutrements are an imported (and somewhat recent) addition to the holiday season in Italy. The most traditional Christmas decoration throughout the country is the nativity scene, or “presepio,” and the best place to get everything you need to create your own presepio is Naples’ famous Christmas Alley.
If you’re raising an eyebrow at the name “Christmas Alley,” wondering why an Italian street has an American name, you’re right to be skeptical.
The street’s real name is Via San Gregorio Armeno, and in Naples you won’t hear it called anything else. It has earned the nickname “Christmas Alley” from travelers who marvel at the presepio workshops that line the street – because they’re open and doing business year-round, not just during the holidays. There are window displays all along the street that make it look like Christmas no matter what month it is. Of course, in the weeks right before Christmas, Via San Gregorio Armeno is packed with Italian shoppers looking for the perfect addition to their existing presepio.
The tradition of the presepio (pronounced preh|ZEHP|yoh, with the plural being presepi, or preh|ZEHP|ee) dates back to the 13th century and St. Francis of Assisi, who wanted to recreate a manger scene in a cave in the Umbrian hills. Today, no matter where you go in Italy during the holiday season, you’ll see nativity scenes large and small. They appear in shop and home windows and in public squares, and living nativity scenes – with volunteers or actors portraying each role, and often live animals surrounding the manger – even take shape outside some churches.
In Naples, nativities are taken extremely seriously – many of the shops along Christmas Alley are artisans who pass the tradition down through generations. One of the historic shops on the street is Ferrigno, run by the Ferrigno family for more than 150 years.
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Rather than simple manger scenes that you might see in nativities elsewhere in the world, Italian nativities can get really elaborate. They include the manger, of course, but around that an entire village can be built – a village that sometimes looks like a very modern-day Naples. A walk down the Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples’ Centro Storico will give you a glimpse of the possibilities when it comes to what you can add to your own nativity.
You could bring shops, houses, fountains (with running water), gardens, and lighting into the scene. There are wooden or terra cotta figurines representing every profession imaginable, both modern and historic, as well as figurines made to look like modern sports heroes and politicians. Beloved players on Naples’ soccer team are always available, as are popular musicians and members of the Italian government. You’ll see plenty of non-Italian personalities, too – including the Obamas, Prince William and Duchess of Cambridge Kate, Apple founder Steve Jobs, and even Muammar Gaddafi.
An Italian presepio typically grows each year, as more scenery and figurines are added. The entire nativity can be expensive, which is one of the reasons they are often built slowly over many years, or handed down from one generation to the next. Even if your Christmas decorations at home don’t include a nativity scene, bringing home a Neapolitan figurine or two can be an excellent way to remember your Naples visit every time you celebrate the Christmas holiday.
In addition to the browsing and shopping opportunities along Via San Gregorio Armeno, there are some museums in Naples that have historic presepi in their permanent collections. The San Martino Charterhouse Museum (Certosa di San Martino) has an excellent exhibit of nativities, while others (the Palazzo Reale and San Lorenzo Maggiore Museum among them) have smaller exhibits.