Italian traditions: San Gregorio Armeno, The Christmas Nativity Tradition
- WTI Magazine #86 Dec 17, 2016
With every new start to the Christmas season, the shopping race takes off, and the Italian streets are filled with exquisitely festive colors and light. Shop windows are decorated to attract the eye, while most cities also host their own Christmas markets, where you can purchase typical products and, most of all, presents and almost anything to do with Christmas. Of all the markets, the one you should not miss is the one in Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, with its endless shops dedicated to the Christmas Nativity tradition famous all over the world.
This street and its shops can be visited at any time of the year - tourists can enjoy a magical Christmas atmosphere when they please. The large part of the artisan workshops are always open with handicraft products on display (though in a smaller quantity than what you can see during Christmastime). The nice part about visiting this market outside the Christmas Season is that shoppers can watch the artisans work and browse their goods in relative tranquility - while the atmosphere is much more crowded and frenetic during the Days of Advent. San Gregorio Armeno represents an important tradition: for families in Naples, Christmas activities also include a visit to this charming street, an obligatory stop before they build their own Nativity at home. Here visitors will see top artisans creating, exhibiting and selling the miniature figures that make up the Nativity scene - masterpieces realized through the skills passed down from generation to generation. In particular, in this street you can find any sort of item suitable for a Nativity scene: from houses big or small, made in cork or cardboard - to mechanical items activated by electric energy such as windmills, waterfalls, even hand-painted, terracotta shepherds and 30cm-tall statues in hand-woven dress.
No Nativity personage is left out, from the Holy Family (including the ox and the donkey) to the Magi, as well as the numerous minor characters to complete the scene: shepherds, fruit vendors, fishmongers, butchers, and even a pizza maker next to his oven. The predominant aspect of the typical Neapolitan Nativity is its perfect fusion between the sacred and the profane - after all, it not only involves the statues of the Holy Family, the Magi, and the shepherds in every dimension, shape, and price range, but also very common are parodies of famous characters from both past and present. In fact, gaining a spot in the Neapolitan Nativity has become a sort of goalpost for Italian entertainers, politicians and athletes. These additional caricature figures in the Nativity embody Neapolitans' typical humor and creativity, and have become an ever more significant fixture in the scenes. By now, they are the most popular draw in Via San Gregorio Armeno's stalls.
Some craftsmen are extra-specialized in realizing these "original" and of the moment figurines: as soon as a celebrity becomes the object of gossip, his or her face will be used for a new statue and, in most cases, some of the characteristics that brought him fame (or notoriety) are deliberately represented in an exaggerated or hilarious way. Evidently, the Neapolitan Nativity is not just a staid tradition, but a cultural event that follows the flow and trends of the times. It is a world unto itself, constantly shaped and transformed by young, innovative craftsmen that continue to modernize this centuries-old art.