Five Christmas Traditions in Naples
In Italy, the Christmas season officially begins on December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. But truth be told, it already feels a bit jolly after November 1st and All Souls Day. Just as Thanksgiving launches the full tilt bozo Christmas frenzy in the United States, All Souls Day seems to trumpet in the yuletide spirit in Bella Italia. That means the Christmas season lasts two whole (and sometimes painfully long) months here in Italy. And to think that just two short weeks ago we were all still going to the beach in Naples.
The holiday season is a magical time in Southern Italy. Confectionaries and nativity scenes beseech even the grinches among us to join in all the merriment. At the very least we don’t have to listen to Grandma Got Ran Over By a Reindeer and Feliz Navidad no less than 2,000 times until the Rose Bowl. Although in Italy you can also expect to here John Lennon belting And So Merry Christmas in the middle of July. In honor of the holiday season, below are five indispensible Neapolitan Christmas traditions. If you can’t make it here for Christmas, you can think of us as you enjoy another slog of Eggnog-which by the way- try explaining that one to the average Neapolitan!
1) Immaculate Conception Rites in Piazza Gesu Nuovo
In the center of Naples’ Piazza Gesu Nuovo, stands a prominent obelisk on top of which stands a statue of the Virgin Mary. In honor of her immaculate conception, the mayor of Naples delivers a bouquet of white roses to her every December 8th with the assistance of Naples Fire Brigade. Using a telescopic ladder, firefighters beam up to the Madonna to wish her well and lay hands on her robes. As any proud Neapolitan can tell you, the statue and the obelisk she stands on belong to the people of Naples and not the clergy after an 1818 agreement between King Ferdinand of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and Pope Pius VII. An old legend has it that at certain times of the day the statue of the Virgin Mary miraculously grows a second face as she gazes somewhat perniciously down upon her citizenry. If Santa get lazy and forgets to check his naughty list twice, you can rest assured that this lady boss won’t be sleeping on the job.
2) San Gregorio Armeno Christmas Lane
Naples is famous for its intricate nativity scenes, which often feature water powered mills, delicately carved shop keepers and striking electrical light shows in addition to the simple manger and barn yard animals. A stroll down the ancient San Gregorio Armeno Street, where nativity scene craftsman still hand carve these figurines, is a must-see in Naples. For generations these crafts man have preserved the tradition of the presepe- nativity scenes. They keep things comical by occasionally throwing in a Donald Trump or an Elvis with the more traditional baby Jesus. God help us all if Donald J. Trump was present on that holy night. We can only imagine what the Madonna would have done to him.
3) Struffoli & Roccocò
There are over a dozen traditional Neapolitan Christmas sweets (most of which were invented in old convents) but the undisputed kings of Christmas confectionary are struffoli and roccocò. Struffoli, which dates back to an ancient Greek recipe, contains bits of fried or baked balls of dough drenched in honey and speckled with candied fruit and sprinkles. When the Struffoli arrives, then you know it is time to party! Rococò, a doughnut shaped cookies is a nostalgic favorite containing cinnamon, almond and orange peel. It is sublime when dunked in coffee, or maybe even Eggnog.
4) The Christmas Bagpipe and the Procession of the Bambinello
It comes as a surprise to many that there is a revered bagpiping tradition in and around Naples and the rest of Southern Italy. Shepherds traditionally fashioned these bagpipes, locally known as zampogna, out of goat hide. Even today, around the Christmas season, roving bands of zampognari bagpipe players still dress as shepherds and lead processions throughout towns all over Southern Italy. In many towns, zampognari lead the Processione of the Bambinello (baby Jesus) on January 1st to welcome the New Year.
5) Capitone Christmas EEL!
Perhaps the most comedic (and mildly disturbing) Neapolitan Christmas tradition is the consumption of eel on Christmas Eve. Wives and mothers across Naples can be found in Christmas fish markets, open until the wee hours leading up to the Christmas Eve Vigilia, buying slippery, slithery live eels- they look a lot like snakes by the way! The beloved film, Il Mistero di Bellavista, memorialized this curious Christmas tradition in an unforgettable scene of a maniacal Neapolitan housewife chasing a loose eel in her kitchen with an enormous butcher’s knife. For those intrigued enough to actually taste the dish, it is deep fried. Which is well enough because as we say in Naples, even a shoe is good when fried.