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A Glimpse Back in Time: Neapolitan Nativity Scenes

Napolitan Nativity Scenes
Napolitan Nativity Scenes

A Glimpse Back in Time: Neapolitan Nativity Scenes

When asked to picture a nativity scene, what do you see? Most of us will conjure images of a humble manger with a few small statues: the Holy Family, the Magi, farm animals, and perhaps some shepherds. Generally speaking, these reverent representations of the Birth of Christ can be characterized as traditional with little variation. However, this does not apply to the nativity scenes in Naples, where over-the-top depictions and elaborate designs have flourished for centuries handcrafted by local artisans following methods that have been passed down for generations.

The birthplace of nativity scenes

Though the exact origins of Naples’ nativity scenes are unknown, historical evidence points to this craft being practiced in the city as early as 1025, approximately 2 centuries prior to St. Francis of Assisi’s first live nativity scene. Local artisans began crafting nativity scene statues as a proper art form during the 15th century and this is also when the first versions of nativity scenes set in rocky caves were created.

As the 17th century unfolded, the statues expanded from traditional sacred figures to a vast array of profane characters typically present on Naples’ streets and squares. The nativity scenes became a snapshot of daily life in Naples representing an entire city with tavern keepers, vendors, and cobblers interspersed among beggars, dwarves, and hunchbacked women. Frequently present were local outdoor markets outfitted with stands featuring butchers, vegetable vendors, fishmongers, bakers, and more.

Without a doubt, the golden age of Neapolitan nativity scenes peaked during the 1700s when the craft expanded from churches to the homes of aristocrats and the royal court of Charles of Bourbon. Small, yet intricate scenes blossomed into vast landscapes incorporating countless religious elements.

The nativity scenes created for the royal court featured statues posed on large rocks or cliffs made out of cork. Just one nativity scene could illustrate multiple events such as the journey of the Magi and the announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds with angels suspended in the air. The scenes became so intricate that at the Royal Palace of Caserta the ceiling of a room that once held a nativity scene was painted to look like the night sky.

Eventually, the tradition of the elaborate nativity scene as it was known in the royal courts faded over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet, still to this day, each Christmas the city of Naples gleams with grand nativity scenes composed in churches. Locals also create miniature versions in their own homes, typically with statues procured from the historic workshops of Via San Gregorio Armeno.

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Campania_Naples_Modern_Figures_Artisan

Strolling through Via San Gregorio Armeno

Known as the “Street of Nativity Scenes”, Via San Gregorio Armeno is considered the hub of nativity scene workshops. The local artisans create statues with an eclectic mix of traditional characters and modern personalities (such as celebrities that may have become popular during the year, both for positive and negative reasons).

The street itself is ancient with Greek origins. At one point, there was a temple dedicated to the goddess Ceres where locals would place votive offerings in the form of terracotta statues produced in nearby workshops. Some believe that this history could be tied to the eventual development of the nativity workshops along Via San Gregorio Armeno.

Walking through this remarkable street in Naples’ historic city center, travelers will be amazed at the number of workshops filled with never-ending rows of pastori (meaning shepherds, which is the local term used to refer to the statues) all made by hand. Even more amazing are the natural backgrounds depicted in these scenes which can include running water and windmills powered by electricity. To learn even more about this tradition, some shops feature small exhibits of their work or offer demonstrations which provide remarkable insight into the process of composing a traditional nativity scene.

Christmas festivities

The workshops are open year-round for locals and travelers to peer into this fascinating world, however Via San Gregorio truly comes alive during the Christmas Period. Towards the end of November, shopkeepers prepare displays showcasing the season’s offerings plus a few “special editions” tied to that particular year.

On December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Neapolitans set up their own nativity scenes at home with an assortment of statues and decorations. Great care is taken to properly set the scene with lights, starry backdrops, grass, and rocks. The final touch occurs after midnight on Christmas Eve when Baby Jesus is traditionally placed in the crib.

The celebrations wind down around the Epiphany, as Neapolitans take down their nativity scenes and the artisans begin preparing for the following year.

Campania_Naples_Nativity_Figures_Artisan
Campania_Naples_Nativity_Figures_Artisan

Traditional symbolism

There is a great deal of symbolism tied to the specific statues and even to the scenery present in Naples’ historic nativity scenes. A few fascinating examples include:

  • Benino: a sleeping shepherd. According to tradition, the nativity scene forms in Benino’s dreams, and if you were to “wake him up” the nativity scene would disappear.
  • The street vendors: each of the vendors in the street market is associated with a month of the year. For instance, the butcher represents January and the tomato seller represents July.
  • The prostitute: meant to contrast the Virgin Mary, the prostitute also represents sinners who seek spiritual redemption. This figure is placed near the inn with her back to the rest of the scene.
  • The bridge: represents a passage between the world of the living and that of the dead.
  • Ruins of Greek and/or Roman architecture: meant to convey the triumph of Christianity over paganism

Making a modern nativity scene

Though the grand displays that once flourished in the royal court of Naples are no longer the norm, the nativity scene tradition remains tied to Neapolitan culture. The craft continues to evolve with young artists who offer new interpretations on classic themes. Some local artists have created miniature nativity scenes in unexpected places such as inside lightbulbs and on the head of a pin. Combining the nativity scene with Naples’ other great love, there is even a local pizzeria that makes a nativity scene out of pizza each year.

In the modern era, nativity scene artisans have let their creativity shine by designing statues that reflect the “characters” of their age from politicians to movie stars and soccer players. This year, artisans have kept busy making statues dedicated to the heroes of 2020: doctors and nurses battling the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Have you thought about making your own nativity scene? What figures or symbols would best represent your city? It does not need to be elaborate; with a cardboard box, a few statues, and handmade decorations you’ll be well on your way!

For Naples, the historic nativity scenes that flourished in the 18th century went beyond religion to become a representation of a people and their culture. Today this tradition persists giving curious travelers a glimpse into the city’s past and a better understanding of a culture filled with contradictions. If you would like to dive further into Naples’ chaotic beauty click here.

Merry and Bright: Italy’s Christmas Markets

Italy Christmas Market
Italy Christmas Market

The Holiday Season may look a little different this year, but that won’t stop us from dreaming of postcard-perfect snowcapped mountain landscapes and cups full of decadent hot chocolate. During this time of year, there are typically many fascinating cultural traditions occurring in Italy, with perhaps the most beloved by locals and visitors alike being the annual Mercatini di Natale (Christmas Markets).

A Little History

As the days grow shorter and snow begins to fall, Italians gather in the large squares of their cities and towns to celebrate the season and take in the sights and sounds of the annual Christmas Markets. Considering Italy’s illustrious history, the Mercatini are a relatively new tradition, yet one that is highly anticipated each year.

In Europe, the traditional Christmas Markets were initiated by Germanic cultures during the Middle Ages to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Nicholas. Today, the largest and most historic markets are located in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The jovial spectacles filled with music, lights, local handicrafts, and food, eventually made their way south to Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige region, tucked away in the picturesque Dolomite Alps.

One of Italy’s earliest Mercatini di Natale modeled after the German markets was held in Bolzano’s sprawling Piazza Walther in 1990. From here, the Germanic-style markets spread through South Tyrol, Alto Adige, and the rest of Italy.

Traditional Wares

Specific characteristics of the Mercatini can vary from town to town, but there is one guarantee—all things Christmas related. The markets themselves consist of small stands set up in the city’s main streets and squares. Here local artisans sell Christmas decorations, culinary products, artisanal crafts, toys, souvenirs, and Christmas gifts. Timing can vary, though usually the Christmas Markets open at the beginning of Advent and end on or around the Epiphany.

To add to the festivities, the streets and squares that host the markets are decked out with all of the appropriate seasonal trappings ranging from large Christmas trees to tinsel, ornaments, and the characteristic lights that shine brightly in the dark winter nights. These marvelous sights are accompanied by traditional carols and festive choirs.

Many Mercatini may also feature performances tied to the season such as living nativity scenes or reenactments of the birth of Christ. Depending on the size of the market, you may also find interactive events such as cooking classes and games. Truly, these whimsical markets offer plenty of fun for the whole family to enjoy!

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Festive Food & Drink

Naturally, since these markets take place in Italy, there are many local culinary specialties to taste. As you enter a Christmas Market, the bright colors and sounds will likely catch your attention first, but then while walking from stand to stand many delicious aromas will greet you.

Though it will vary depending on what part of Italy you find yourself in, seasonal staples at the Mercatini include local cured meats and sausages, freshly baked bread, hot chocolate (the real deal made with milk and melted chocolate), and vin brulé (the Italian Alps version of mulled wine). Also on the menu are some of the very best local sweets ranging from apple strudel to panforte (a chewy dessert made with fruits and nuts).

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For Your Bucket List

Since nearly every major city and town in Italy hosts its own version of Mercatini di Natale, there are plenty of options to choose from! Below you will find a brief summary of the most evocative markets, though this is by no means an exhaustive list. Certainly, if you find yourself in Italy in December, you will have a phenomenal time no matter which Christmas Market you visit.

Trentino-Alto Adige

In addition to Bolzano, many cities, both large and small, in Trentino-Alto Adige celebrate the Holiday Season with Mercatini di Natale. Some of the largest and most important can be found in Trento, Merano, Brunico, Bressanone, and Vipiteno.

Many of these markets are renowned for their unique traditions. For example, one building in Bolzano’s city center (the former home of astronomer Max Valier) is transformed each year into a giant Advent Calendar implementing 24 of the building’s windows. As each day of Advent passes, one window is opened to reveal lights and a unique Christmas image.

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Aosta

The quaint Alpine city of Aosta transforms into a certifiable Winter Wonderland from the end of November to the beginning of January. Held in the city’s iconic Ancient Roman Theater, this celebration, called Marché Vert Nöel, features charming wooden chalets beautifully decorated to fit the occasion. There are plenty of handmade products on display from soaps and ceramics to wool and lace. Be sure to taste Aosta’s signature sweets and wines as well—you won’t be disappointed!

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Florence

For one full month each year, Florence’s iconic Piazza Santa Croce transports visitors to a delightful German village via the Weihnachtsmarkt German Market. Outside of Trentino-Alto Adige, this is perhaps one of the best intersections of German and Italian culture during the Christmas Season. All of the traditional culinary goodies and remarkable artisanal crafts can be found here in addition to beautiful light displays with the added bonus of a Renaissance backdrop.

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Milan

Milan’s Christmas Market is worth mentioning not only because it is one of the largest in Italy, but because its history is distinct from the Germanic tradition. Characterized as more of a Christmas Fair than a market, the event is called Oh Bej! Oh Bej! (How Beautiful! How Beautiful!) and it is held from December 7 until the following Sunday to coincidence with the Feast of St. Ambrose, the city’s patron Saint. The perfect place to celebrate the beginning of Christmastime and to purchase gifts, sweets, and treats (including roasted chestnuts), today the fair takes place outside of Milan’s iconic Sforza Castle.

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We hope that learning more about Italy’s Mercatini di Natale has brought you a bit of Holiday Cheer. Perhaps you may have even discovered a few new places to visit in the future. No matter how you will be celebrating this year, on behalf of the whole Trips 2 Italy team we wish you a peaceful Holiday Season.

Cioccolata Calda Recipe: Authentic Italian Hot Chocolate

Hot Chocolate Recipe
Hot Chocolate Cup in Italy

Cioccolata Calda Recipe: Authentic Italian Hot Chocolate

The quintessential winter treat, cioccolata calda (hot chocolate) is beloved by Italians for its rich flavor derived from the use of milk and melted chocolate. A delicious staple of Italy’s characteristic Christmas markets, cioccolata calda is also perfect for a quiet evening at home.

  • Prep Time5 min
  • Cook Time15 min
  • Total Time20 min
  • Yield2 Servings

Ingredients

For Cioccolata calda (Hot Chocolate):

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 ½ tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ tbsp corn starch
  • 4 ¼ oz dark chocolate 60% to 69% cacao

For Optional whipped cream:

  • 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup cold heavy cream

Instructions

1

For the optional whipped cream:  Pour cold heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla extract into a mixing bowl. Use a hand mixer or stand mixer to whip the cream. Continue to whip until peaks begin to form and stop periodically to test the peaks (medium to stiff peaks are best for this recipe). When the whipped cream is ready, place in the refrigerator and start preparing the hot chocolate.

2

For the hot chocolate: Roughly chop the dark chocolate. Set a medium bowl over a saucepan or pot of simmering water (the bowl must not touch the water) and put the chocolate in the bowl. With a whisk or spatula, stir continuously until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Put the melted chocolate aside.

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3

Pour the milk into a medium saucepan followed by the corn starch. Stir the mixture then add the cocoa powder and stir once more.

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4

Turn on the heat to medium-low and let the mixture heat up while whisking continuously. Add the sugar, then continue to whisk. Ensure that the mixture does not boil.

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5

Add the melted chocolate to the saucepan with the milk and cocoa powder mixture. Continue to stir until thickened to your desired consistency. Pour into a mug and top with homemade whipped cream.

Note: If the chocolate ends up being too dense, dilute with a bit of milk or more whipped cream.

Bollito Makes A Christmas Day Dinner

Bollito

Bollito is a dish prevalent in the northern part of Italy especially in the regions of Lombardy and Piedmont. It typically consists of a variety of meats, usually tougher cuts of beef or veal, that are gently boiled for about 3 hours in a broth made from vegetables and herbs. The result is tender, flavorful meat in rich, delicious broth. A good bollito requires plenty of time to cook, fresh herbs, and carefully selected meats. Bollito can be served on its own or paired with boiled vegetables, homemade sauces, or mostarda (candied fruit in a mustard-based syrup). In Piedmont, ``bollito misto`` is prevalent, which features hen and cotechino (pork sausage) in addition to beef and veal. This simple and hearty dish is a classic winter staple for many Italian families and an emblem of Italian home-cooking.

  • Prep Time15 min
  • Cook Time3 hr
  • Total Time3 hr 15 min

Ingredients

Ingredients

  • 2 ¼ lbs. beef (ideal cuts for this recipe include: fore shank, short ribs, brisket, bottom sirloin, chuck steak, flank steak, or round steak)
  • 1 carrot
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 15 grams kosher salt
  • 1 onion
  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • 3 cloves
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 4 whole black peppercorns

Preparation

1

Tie the meat with kitchen twine (any of the cuts listed above can be used in this recipe). Fill a tall pot with water and place over medium heat. Peel the onion and stick the three cloves into the onion. Peel the carrot and cut it into pieces that are about 1 inch in length. Tie the bay leaves, parsley, and thyme together using kitchen twine. Place the onion, carrot, celery, and herbs in the water.

2

Once the water is boiling, add the salt and the meat. It is very important that the meat is immersed in the water only after it has started to boil consistently, not a moment before.

3

After a few minutes, foam will begin to gather on the surface of the water. Remove all of the foam with a skimmer and then add the black peppercorns to the pot. Reduce the heat to low.

4

Cook for about 3 hours ensuring that the water remains at a gentle, but consistent boil throughout. Once the meat is cooked, remove it from the water using a slotted spoon.