Christmas trees, Santa Claus and the presepio. These were the main elements of Christmas as I remember it as an Italian American growing up in New Jersey. Both my parents families emigrated to the US from Naples, taking with them many rich Italian traditions. The Christmas holiday was not just a time to exchange gifts, but also to enjoy great food, get together with family and friends and commemorate the customs and traditions that generations before had honoured.
In school, we would create Christmas tree ornaments, sing traditional Christmas carols and write letters to Santa Claus. But at home, I was learning about, and celebrating, another tradition: that of the presepio, which was an essential part of our Neapolitan Christmas celebration. For my grandfather, Nunzio Scienzo, the joy of the holiday always lay in the annual designing and building of the presepio, which he based on the descriptions of St Francis of Assisi. It is believed in Italy that St Francis began the tradition of the nativity scene by placing an infant on a bed of straw between a live ox and ass. But it was in Naples that the presepio had its fullest and most imaginative development, and that tradition carried on in my family in America.
My grandfather would start early in November by creating a cave with the holy family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, animals and angels. It was made mostly of paper, which was crumpled up, glued and painted. Near the cave he would place an inn bustling with activity, with people seated around a table eating, along with the tiny foodstuffs such as sausages and ham that would be hanging in the inn. There were women carrying bread and filling urns at the water well, as well as a waterfall and clothes drying on one of the terraces of the homes. I also remember a pizzaiolo making pizzas next to a brick oven, a special Neapolitan touch added by my grandfather. In the distance were the three magi, who were moved closer to the cave each day until 6 January, the day of the Epiphany.
All of the statues were imported from Naples, specifically from Via S. Gregorio Armeno, the street in the heart of the old city where the artisans sell presepio pieces and specialise in the restoration of antique figures as well as the creation of new ones. One can also find indispensable elements for a manger scene such as the little hilltop towns, buildings and waterfalls characteristic of the settings, as well as the tiny reproductions of objects of everyday life that are one of the distinctive features of the Neapolitan presepio. Today, the vitality of this centuries-old tradition can still be seen on this busy street.
The Piazza Navona Christmas market in Rome stocks the various pieces you need to create your own presepio. Prices vary according to the detail of the work, starting from about 25 for a simple group made of plastic to over 800 for a large stable scene in terracotta.
At home, the Christmas tree was always secondary in importance to the nativity scene. While I still hung my Christmas stocking and waited for Santa Claus, the presepio that my grandfather created and the memories that surrounded it held the real meaning of Christmas and are something that I will always cherish.