Christmas in Naples officially begins on December 8 with the Festa dell’Immacolata Concezione (the Immacuate Conception), when Neapolitans decorate their Christmas trees and start putting in their orders at the fishmongers.

But much older than the tradition of the Christmas tree is the presepe (nativity scene), and many Neapolitans head for Via San Gregorio Armeno, an ancient street named after a church dedicated to St Gregory of Armenia. The presepe tradition is said to have originated with St Francis of Assisi who, in 1223, placed a manger and live animals in a cave outside the town of Greccio to recreate the birth of Jesus for the townspeople before they celebrated the Christmas Eve mass.

Today, Via San Gregorio Armeno is lined with shops and workshops where artisans create intricate nativity scenes from terracotta, wood, metal and eve papier maché, all carefully hand-painted to be as realistic as possible.

The art of Neapolitan nativity on Via San Gregorio Armeno / Image: Adobe Stock

For decades, artisans have also been creating random caricatures to add to the scene: controversial politicians (including Berlusconi), footballers (Maradona is still a favourite thanks to his spell with Napoli FC), film stars and even the late Queen Elizabeth II.

One of the most impressive presepe is found at the Royal Palace in Caserta. The giant 18th-century scene features hundreds of terracotta characters, including bread-makers, Georgian gentlefolk, pizza-makers, and tripe-sellers. The palace also sometimes features work by modern artists (such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Julian Opie), some of whom were invited to focus their creations on the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia in southern Italy, when almost 3,000 people lost their lives.

Naples’ cathedral puts on a host of Christmas events in December (known as Luce di Napoli, ‘Light of Naples’), including a living nativity scene, concerts and guided tours of the Museo del Tesoro di San Gennaro. When San Gennaro (the patron saint of Naples) refused to renounce his faith in 305 AD, he was tortured and beheaded.

Several times a year, the solid remnants of San Gennaro’s blood supposedly appears to liquify and therefore – as the saint is believed to be intimately connected to the city – the apparent public miracle signifies good fortune for Naples. The blood famously didn’t liquify the year the Covid pandemic began.

Fishmongers stay open all night in the lead-up to December 24 / Image: Adobe Stock

Christmas in Naples is a time for family and food, demonstrated by the popular Italian proverb, ‘Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi’, which roughly translates as ‘Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you like’.

All over Italy, Christmas Eve is the main event, and it’s a total fish-fest. No meat is eaten, according to tradition, and pescherie (fishmongers) stay open all night on December 22 and 23, so that Neapolitans can stock up on everything they need to make their favourite fish dishes: spaghetti alle vongole (with clams), baccalà (salted cod), bianchetti fritti (fried whitebait), and capitone (eels, fried, or served in a tomato sauce). Fishmongers also take orders, from December 8, for special items, such as mazzancolle (tiger prawns from Procida). The Porta Nolana fish market, which lies in the lee of the ancient Aragonese city wall, is packed on the night of December 23, when it caters to late fish foragers.

Scrumptious, unashamedly indulgent struffoli / Image: Adobe Stock

Other typical Christmas Eve dishes include insalata di rinforzo (a pickle salad of cauliflower, olives, anchovies and pappacelle, sweet bell peppers from Campania), ‘pizza di Scarole’ (a savoury pie stuffed with endive), and the ubiquitous Neapolitan friarelli (similar to cime di rape or turnip tops) served with garlic and chilli.

Visitors to Naples should visit Baccalaria (closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), which specialises in typical dishes of baccalà and stoccafisso (air-dried cod). The attached bottega also sells many products from the region.

Panettone can be found everywhere, but no Neapolitan Christmas is complete without honey balls (struffoli), fried dough covered in honey and sprinkles. It’s thought that the Ancient Greeks brought a similar dish to the area more than 3,000 years ago.

Struffoli are often given as gifts, as are piennoli, the tomatoes grown on the side of Mount Vesuvius. Thanks to their thick skin and little juice, these sweet ‘Christmas tomatoes’ are highly flavourful and can last all winter, if they haven’t all been eaten of course. After so much indulgence, Neapolitans start to lighten up from Boxing Day with salads, vegetable soups and Manfredi, a pasta dish of tomato and ricotta.

The witch-like woman, ‘La Befana’ / Image: Adobe Stock

The Christmas season ends on January 6 with Epiphany. Trees, lights and presepi, are all taken down, and the last celebration of the season is the visitation of a witch-like woman, ‘La Befana’ (deriving from the word ‘Epifania’), who traditionally delivers gifts to children. The legend of La Befana stretches back to the 13th century, preceding Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) by many centuries. The story goes that, like the Magi, Befana followed a star in the hope of finding baby Jesus but, uncertain of his location, she left sweets at every house where a child lived. There’s even a song in her honour:

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana

viva viva La Befana.

(‘The Befana comes at night, with worn-out shoes, with the Roman-style hat [think GK Chesterton’s ‘Father Brown’], long live La Befana’.)

Inside Noto's San Carlo church sits a nativity scene made of woollen and crocheted characters / Image: Adobe Stock

The presepe tradition isn’t limited to Naples, of course, and across Italy you’ll find presepi viventi, where the town’s citizens dress up in ancient robes to recreate a living tableau of the nativity scene. For example, in Palermo, Sicily, the Church of Sant’Isidoro Agricola is known as the Church of the Bakers, and the presepe is made entirely of bread.

Also in Sicily, the Baroque-style church of San Carlo in Noto has an especially lovely nativity scene made entirely of woollen and crocheted characters, all hand-knitted by Giovanna Franzó. Naturally, Sicily also has its own dish, traditionally served on Christmas Eve – Scacciata Siciliana – a pie filled with broccoli, sausage, and olives.

Naples is special at any time, but at Christmas there’s no better time to experience the warmth, colour, and culture, not to mention the incredible cuisine, of this ancient city.

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