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In Italy, in cities all around the country, families are foraging through stuffy closets, garages and cellars. They are looking for certain old boxes wrapped with tape and string; once found they carefully place them on the living room floor. Now the ritual of Christmas can finally begin to unfold. Fathers untie the string from around the boxes and gently open the lids to reveal a chaos of cotton. They search delicately with their hands among the various tree decorations until they find what they’re really looking for: the heirloom figurines to be placed in the nativity scenes called presepe. Children watch, anxiously transfixed as each one is unwrapped and dusted. It seems like the reenactment of the adoration of Christ once removed.
In Campania the passion for presepe is taken to the highest of heights. Naples is famous for its Via San Gregorio Armeno, an entire street dedicated to the production of classic and contemporary figurines.
In the tiny town of S. Agata dè Goti my neighbor, zì Giggino, has not been seen for days. Shh! He is putting the finishing touches on his latest presepio.
A diminutive of zio Luigi (Little Uncle Luigi), Zì Giggino is well-known for his nativity scenes. Not happy to simply recreate the manger scene, he recreates the entire town of Bethlehem, designing the scenery, the architecture, the lighting and the plants, all with a maniacal attention to detail.
I never would have known about this had I not found him one summer morning in the garage, surrounded by sheets of cork and bits of wood. He showed me buckets of tiny plastic animals and electrical circuits, bottles of paint and shelves of colored paper that he collects all year round. I asked if he would let me see his next creation in December and then promptly forgot all about it.
But yesterday I thought I heard the squeal of zampognari somewhere inside the building. That’s odd, I thought, what are they doing here? Then I heard a knock on the door and Zì Giggino beckoned me to follow him upstairs. There was his latest masterpiece, being launched into the spirit of Christmas by two friends playing their strident bagpipes.