Every year during the Christmas holidays there are two categories of people, those who prefer the nativity scene and those who prefer the Christmas tree. However, in Neapolitan culture this conflict almost does not exist. Although Christmas trees are decorated even in the beautiful Italian city, the nativity scene is the real star of the season. The reasons are endless and have historical, cultural and artistic roots.
The idea of representing the nativity of Christ during the Christmas period comes from St. Francis of Assisi, who created the first nativity scene in Greccio, Italy, in 1223.
The reason? The Bible was largely available only in Latin at the time, thus priests had to do more to get its stories out there in the common language of the folks. So since then, the little nativity scene has been depicted in scenes large and small in places all over the world.
In Naples, on the other hand, the custom of setting up nativity scenes became popular thanks to Saint Cajetan of Thiene, who arrived in the city at the time of the Spanish viceroyalty, around 1530.
Unlike the Franciscan nativity scene, made up of living characters, terracotta figurines were adopted in Neapolitan land. And so, from a simple nativity exhibited in “scarabattole” (glass containers mainly in the shape of a bell), the tradition has evolved, and the scene has been enriched with characters of the people, gravitating around the Holy Family. In the seventeenth century and especially in the eighteenth century, the crib was no longer a simple Christmas symbol, but a real work of artistic craftsmanship.
And the city itself, with its narrow streets and characteristic views become its scenery. According to tradition, Bethlehem even becomes “Neapolitanized”, with Jesus born in Naples, in the alleys of the city. Each shepherd ends up by metaphorically representing a dream, that of Benino, the sleeping shepherd (inevitable presence in the scenography of the Neapolitan crib), who seems to dream of the miracle of the divine birth.
In any case, the Neapolitan nativity scene is rich in history and esotericism. In the eighteenth century, according to popular tradition, there are ninety elements and figures that crowd the scene of the crib.
And this is not a random number: ninety are in fact the numbers of the grimace and many of them, even today, refer to symbols and meanings present in the ancient setting of the crib.
Traditionally, the Neapolitan popular nativity scene winds through a funnel-shaped, or circular route, a descent from a mountainous setting, typical of the Avellino hinterland, to the Grotto of the Child, passing through the reproduction of portions of the Neapolitan city.
Dominating the crib architectural composition is a castle, which alludes to the figure of Herod and the massacre of the innocents, but the focus of the scene is of course the cave where Jesus was born, although it is never mentioned in the Gospels. It is rather a reference to the god Mithras, the bearer of light, a Persian divinity attested in the Campania region during the Hellenistic period.
Traditionally, near the cave are the fountain and the well. The first alludes to holy water and represents the Virgin Mary who, according to the apocryphal Gospels, was intent on drawing water from a fountain when the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel took place. The well, on the other hand, is a malevolent symbol due to its unknown depth, a link between darkness and the world on the surface. According to a popular legend, it was forbidden to drink and draw water from the well on Christmas Eve. It was believed, in fact, that that water contained evil spirits capable of possessing the person who drank it. Another superstition stated that the heads of all those who would die within the year appeared in the reflections of the water drawn. Similar meanings also had the bridge and the river below, with the bridge symbol of transit that connects the world of the living to that of the dead, as well as a place of frightening nocturnal encounters. Popular rumors connect this element with the devil’s activity, among other things often present as a character in the crib, antagonist of the nascent Christ. Under the bridge there is the rushing river, a sacred symbol of life, purification, but also of the passage of time.
Overloaded with details, chaotic, populated by many characters and objects, is the tavern. It summarizes a complexity of meanings as a place of refreshment, an obligatory stop for travelers and pilgrims, but also the symbol of the journey of Joseph and Mary in search of accommodation. However, it is a place for recreation but also for fights, a refuge for drunkards and scammers, card players and prostitutes. The statuette representing the host sitting on the barrel was affectionately called “Cicci Bacco ‘ngopp a botte”, unmistakable with his big belly, red cheeks and nose, and the flask of wine always full. The innkeeper takes on a negative meaning, associated with the figure of the devil. Legends and folk tales tell horrible stories, like that of an innkeeper who, in the days before Christmas, killed three children, who were cut to pieces and put in a barrel, with the intent of serving the meat to the guests as fillets of tuna fish. But St. Nicholas himself arrived at the tavern, he refused to eat and, blessing the barrel, resurrected the three children. The creepy story was even accompanied by a female song, a dirge known as “‘o lagno ‘e Natale” or the lament for Christmas.
Around the tavern, in a path that leads to the cave, there is the market with its vendors and shops, among which some figures representing the twelve months of the year stand out. January is represented by the butcher, seller of meats and salami, February by the seller of ricotta and cheeses, March is the seller of poultry and game, April the seller of eggs. The month of May is symbolically represented by a young married couple with a basket of cherries, while the month in which the wheat ripens, June, is exalted by the baker and the mill. July and August take on the features of two characters who respectively sell tomatoes and watermelons. The month of September could be indicated allegorically or with the seller of figs (or sometimes with a farmer who sows the fields) and October, the month of the harvest, was embodied by the figure of the vintner or the hunter. November was present with the chestnut seller, and finally December with the fishmonger or fisherman.
Converging towards the nativity scene is a crowd of shepherds, sheep and animals, representing the flock of the faithful guided by divine light.
Even the female characters have a precise role in the Neapolitan crib. For example, near the tavern there is the harlot, who attracts the patrons with her sinful flattery, in opposition to the chaste sanctity of the Virgin Mary. The washerwomen intent on washing clothes at the fountain or at the river rush to Mary’s aid for the birth and hang their white clothes as a symbol of virginity and purity, while the gypsies represent a mixture between the Christian world and the pagan and divinatory one. Near the cave there is also Stefania, a shepherdess who hides a stone under her dress to pretend to be pregnant. In ancient times a popular practice forbade unmarried women to visit pregnant women, and so Stefania, who absolutely wants to see the divine Child, pretends to be pregnant to deceive the angels. But when she is in the presence of Mary, a miracle happened: the stone sneezed and became a child. The angels, realizing the fiction, had changed the stone into a child, that is, Santo Stefano, which is celebrated on December 26, the day after Christmas.
The three Magi, with their respective horses in white, black and red, close the procession of shepherds. They represent the journey in the solar sense: they come from the East, where the sun is born and metaphorically allude to the coming of Christ, the star of the East, with their colors, white for the dawn, red or white for the noon and black for the night.
With the arrival of Charles of Bourbon in Naples, in 1734, the tradition of the nativity scene was no longer a tradition only of the people, but also began to involve the nobles and kings themselves.
A tradition that continues even today, with an art that never ceases to arouse curiosity and admiration around the world.
Images from web – Google Research