Uncovering Italy’s Superlatives in people, places and things

The Presepe is Napoli’s Christmas Tradition

Naples nativity is the Christmas tradition

An artisanal holiday tradition

One of the most beloved traditions is the presepe, the beautiful Christmas nativity scene. An artisanal holiday tradition, the presepe is a miniature celebration of Christmas Eve of figurines which traditionally includes Mary, Joseph, and a crib filled with straw holding the baby Jesus.


Most presepi are often handcrafted by artisans from Napoli, the city known worldwide as Presepe central. Napoli’s Spaccanapoli neighborhood is a meandering grid of entire strade  (roads) – like  Via San Gregorio Armeno – that are filled with handcrafted presepi and workshops devoted to the craft.   Here you can find artisans sculpting, crafting and painting and presepi and its classic figures.

At home with the nativity

Throughout Italian homes, setting up the presepe is a family event. Usually on December 8, families come together and bring out boxes filled with beautifully carved and decorated statuettes that are then carefully set up in a miniature manger.  The presepi is always placed in a location of prominence in the house, but keep in mind, tradition dictates that the baby Jesus is only placed in the crib on Christmas Eve.


What makes the presepe even more fun is that every presepe is different and personalized with figurines like Benino, the sleeping shepherd who dreamt of the birth of Jesus, the Re Magi (three kings) bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, shepherds, angels, sheep, camels and animals.

But artisans don’t just limit their range to period figures. We spotted idols from every era and celebrities from every genre. Our favourite appearances include football phenom Francesco Totti, former president Barack Obama, and football badboy Diego Maradona all hanging out in the manger.


The overall presepi scene trends toward traditional – a charming manger with hay on the ground, but lately we’ve seen representations of manger setting that will blow your mind- whether recreations on an old neighborhood that shows a snapshot of the historical past or a completely futurist interpretation.

Away in the manger and presepi in town

Outside of the home, miniature, life-size and larger than life presepi appear on street alcoves,  town squares, church chapels, boutique windows and business store fronts. There is no denying that the presepe is an important and countrywide custom. Many towns and cities host competitions for the best scenes, some cities even host exhibitions dedicated to presepi like the Vatican’s 100 presepi, www.100presepi.it, featuring one hundred, you guessed it, beautiful nativity scenes.

Live theatre event

One of the more cherished events tied with the nativity is the presepe vivente, a living nativity scene, where townspeople dress up to take on the roles of the presepi protagonists, and often includes animals to populate the manger.  The Nativity scene is acted out as a live theatre event where scenes are reenacted.  One of the most anticipated presepi viventi is in Matera. The city historic city of stone (recently seen in the latest 007 film) brings history to life with presepe Matera, www.presepematera.it. 

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