The enchanting Neapolitan nativity scene (presepe) has in Naples more significance than the Christmas tree, which wasn’t put up in Neapolitan homes until the 50s. The Christmas crib shows the everyday life of the people and can’t, therefore, be compared to the nativity scene known in North Italy, Germany or Austria.
Of course, the baby Jesus and the Madonna, who is worshipped in Naples, play an important role here as well, but these figurines are not in the centre of interest in the Neapolitan nativity scene. For example, it is perfectly okay to place a farmer’s wife cooking spaghetti next to the three Magi.
In Naples, it is tradition to put up the nativity scene already on December 8. However, the Jesus figurine isn’t placed in the manger until the night of December 24.
Up to the 16th century only monasteries had nativity scenes. Later on, they found their way into many aristocratic homes although, during the 16th and 17th century, they were still designed by the clergy. The displayed scenes at that time reflected how the aristocratic families believed the life of the people was like and didn’t necessarily correspond with real life. For that reason, the nativity scenes can be compared to creative doll’s houses rather than be considered a display of traditions of certain eras.
In Naples historic city you find the Via San Gregorio Armeno, where you can admire numerous shops with creative nativity figurines in all variations. Besides the Jesus- and Madonna figurines you will also find detailed copies of all household objects, gastronomic delights, exotic animals, and sometimes even caricatured politicians. At Christmastime, the shops in the street of the cribs are especially busy.
In the Museo Nazionale di San Martino you can see the largest nativity scene, the Cuciniello, with 162 people, 80 animals, angels, and about 450 miniature objects.