Yes, it sounds quite strange talking about Naples at this time of the year. The warm climate, the beautiful sea give us the idea of Naples as a summer city. Yes it is. But also Christmas is very much loved by Neapolitans. Streets, squares are decorated for Christmas.
Nowadays the feeling is a little bit changed, the life is always in a hurry. But in the past, not very far actually, (I remember them), was not unusual to see the “zampognari” around the city during these days at the end of November to December 8th, and again from the December 16th to Christmas. They’re named after the musical instrument “zampogna” (bagpipe) they play. We have something in common with the Scottish!
Anyway in these days tribute to the Holy mother started; we call it “novena alla Madonna Immacolata”. Every day the “zampognari” played a religious song in front of a picture or statue of the Holy Mother or Jesus. And this practice was not done in the churches but anywhere: at home, on the street, in shops, …, a kind of way to say thank you for the beautiful things around the year. For example here they are playing in a pizzeria. At the same time the family who called the Zampognari, prayed to thank.
Nowadays it is still possible to see the zampognari and listen at their music during live nativities scenes specially in small villages. A peaceful moment.
But not only this is Christmas in Naples. The most typical place and actually well known around the world is San Gregorio Armeno. Traditionally in the past the Christmas symbol was the Nativity, the tree is something we imported from the North of Europe. The Nativity was the only Christmas symbol for decades. Even Eduardo de Filippo talked about it in his drama “Natale in casa Cupiello”. Today every family or almost every one have both: christmas tree and Nativity.
And where the Neapolitan went and still goes to buy “pastori” (figurines for the Nativity)? At San Gregorio Armeno, a long, narrow street in the old town where during the season there is the signal “pedestrian one way”. Along this street the laboratories made “pastori” for the whole year. Real masterpieces.
To really understand San Gregorio Armeno it is necessary to know how deep is the tradition in the Neapolitan mood. We use to make the Nativity as a scene of daily life, so you can find not only the Holy Family and Magi and shepards – traditional figures – but also a Franciscan friar, a hunter, the innkeeper, workshops and figurines from the news. Overall whatever is in the daily life is on the Nativity!
Every church has its Nativity. Often made with very old figurines, with different scenes for night and days. The holiday season is the perfect time to visit Neapolitan churches.
But Christmas is also food. We use to have a dinner (“cenone”) at the 24th, and a lunch at 25th. Yes! it’s hard work! We have typical plates as “menestra maretata” (married soup) for the 25th, basically a soup where vegetables and meat get married. Ad we have lots of typical sweets. We call them “dolci di Natale”, assorted pastries made with chocolate, honey, nuts, walnuts and almond paste.
And we have “struffoli”: fried dough with honey and colored sprinkles. And the Neapolitan “cassata” a particular cake very similar to the Sicilian one but with some small differences. One for all: the cover of the Sicilian “cassata” is made with ” pasta reale” a special dough made with almond past, sugar and white egg (in Sicily use to make with this dough small pastries with fruit appearance). The Neapolitan one is covered only with a layer of sugar melted with water and lemon juice.
So if you’re planning a trip to Neaples, Christmas is the right time to have a different look of the city.