Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way!. If you are reading this singing, no worries, you're not mad!, it's just the Christmas mood is on!.
Christmas is definitely my favourite time of the year. I feel that it brings my child side out and many happy memories. All memories of my Naples of course!. I can't imagine spending it away from my city, family and friends. Napoli in December is absolutely beautiful and I know that many other cities are beautiful too with all the lights and decorations and people feeling festive on the streets, but trust me, Napoli is something else. It's magical. Here, people are not too stressed about shopping for presents because they know how important this time of year is. So the consumeristic side of it hasn't taken away the magic of Christmas. In Napoli, Christmas means being with your family and all the people you love the most, eating loads of food, drinking wine, playing games and visiting relatives (even if we can't stand them!). I know that this is how most people spend their Christmas days as well, but in Naples there's something more. It's a feeling, an experience, a magical atmosphere extended through out all the city. It's not easy to explain, that's why I always suggest coming to Napoli in this period to see for yourself. This is the time where all our deepest traditions come to life. There are many of them. Too many to talk about on this blog, but I will tell you about some of the most important ones.
One is the Presepe. It consists of the Nativity scene and in almost every neapolitan home or church there is one. We create the scene of the birth of Jesus in a complex installation of an imaginary village with all the figures (pastori) of every size and colour, sometimes with real lights and water for the fountains and lakes. It's a place where time and culture, religion and history collide in one small universe. You can even find figures of a pizza maker or a butcher near the Holy Family!. And this is how we think of the Presepe. Even if it is an old tradition, it can be still modern. Neapolitans for centuries have passed on this tradition, from royalty to the poor people, loved by young and old.
Always remember to put the statue of the little Jesus in the presepe at midnight and not before!.
If you are in Napoli in December you can't missing going to San Gregorio Armeno also known as Christmas Alley. See the map underneath for location.
Situated in the old town, this is not just a simple street lit up for Christmas. It's much, much more. It's where all the workshops of the Presepe display their incredible creations that they have been working hard on, all year long. In fact, San Gregorio Armeno is open all year round and visitors can admire the immense installations and statues, which sometimes are more like proper works of art and be quite expensive as well.
Have I mentioned the massive range of food and drinks yet?. Well, yes Christmas more than ever is the time to eat specialities of the neapolitan cusine, always in abundance, like it was the end of the world!. Appetizers, starters, antipasti, pasta, fish, desserts, any sort of chocolate pandori, panettoni and much more.
In many families, like mine, Christmas Eve is more important than the actual day of the 25th. You wait all year for this moment of calm, where every problem is forgotten. At least for one night!. Am I too romantic for your taste?. Yes, I know, but I can't help it. I was born in Napoli and we live like that.
If you are christian, you go to the midnight mass, otherwise you are at home waiting for midnight, playing all sorts of games, losing or winning some money (in general, I always tend to lose!).
The most popular game is Tombola. It's more or less like bingo, every number has a meaning (a lot of them with a sexual reference!). Tombola was invented in 1734 during the reign of King Charles III of Bourbon. It consists of a triangular basket (panaro) that holds 90 numbers and the cards (cartelle) to play with. There is also the femminielli tombola. Femminielli is a neapolitan terms to indicate homosexual with femminine gender expression which was believed to bring luck.
If you are planning to come during the Christmas holidays there are also concerts in many churches in the old centre like in San Giovanni Maggiore, at the Academy of music in San Pietro a Maiella and at the Cathedral. Which is a very evocative thing to do if you want to enjoy classical music in medieval and baroque churches. All the events are free.
What makes it magical in the streets on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are the zampognari, musician shepherds playing one of the most famous Italian carols 'Tu scendi dalle stelle' (You Come Down From the Stars) with bagpipes and a piffero, which is a kind of small oboe. In general the musicians are always in pairs, going around the streets, often to raise money for charity. The origin of the zampognaro is not very clear, it certainly comes from the folkloristic music from central and southern Italy. The zampognari is a popular character used in the Presepe, often placed next to the Christ child so to play him a sweet lullaby in this holy and cold night of December.
As I previously said, I fully recommend going to Naples at Christmas time if you can. Plan your journey far in advance, in August or September, as prices can be very expensive nearer the time. But believe me, it's really worth it. I hope you will enjoy it like I do!.
Buon Natale everybody from the Girl from Naples!