The nativity scene: history, tradition, and food symbolism

There is no shortage of everyday food even in one of the most heartfelt and widespread family traditions in Italy

When visiting Naples, one cannot miss a classic walk in San Gregorio Armeno, the famous Via dei Presepi, located between Via dei Tribunali and Spaccanapoli. The most absurd figurines can be found here, from football players to politicians, and of course the traditional shepherds and all those traditional “crib workers” who cook and work among hams and baskets of eggs.

Over the centuries, the nativity scene has known periods of immense fame throughout the world, so much so that today it is the object of truly astonishing collections, such as the one kept in the National Museum in Munich (Bayerisches NationalMuseum M√ľnchen), where more than sixty nativity scenes created between the 17th and 19th centuries, in Italy and elsewhere, are exhibited.

The first nativity scene in Italy

We owe the first nativity scene to St Francis of Assisi, who wanted to represent the nativity for the first time in a wood, with only an ox and a donkey in 1223. From then on, the nativity scene was enriched continuously with symbolism and characters: the first nativity scenes with figurines appeared as early as 1283.  Having become famous and widespread during the Baroque period, the nativity scene faced a difficult time during the Enlightenment. During this time, nativity scenes were hidden in the homes of peasants and that is when they became a familiar symbol, when people started to make them bigger and bigger and especially with figurines that recreated scenes of simple everyday life.  

Food in the nativity scene

The Neapolitan nativity scene is, in line with the spirit of the Neapolitans, the richest in food and symbolism.

All the professions of the market are undoubtedly most represented: the fishmonger with baskets or nets of fish beside him, the baker with tables covered with splendid loaves of bread, the greengrocer with gigantic stalls of fruit and vegetables, the milkman and so on.

Inevitable is the host of shepherds and shepherdesses (recalling the concept of “Jesus the shepherd of souls”) with a never-ending trail of little sheep and lambs behind them.

But consistency is not important in the nativity scene: anything goes.

Whilst it is probable that there were taverns in a Bethlehem of two thousand years ago (the statuette of the drunken man is ever-present in everyone’s nativity scene, often accompanied by his wife insulting him), it is decidedly more unlikely that there were pizza makers kneading pizzas or pastry chefs making panettone. Nevertheless, these figures are never missing amongst the best-selling figurines. 

And with the popularity of cooking shows in recent years, certain nativity scenes that are particularly topical have welcomed the statuettes of celebrity chefs, standing from their tiny pulpit watching us sternly as we get busy at the cooker for Christmas lunch or dinner.

And if the only thing that really matters in setting up the nativity scene in the family is the emotional value that comes from doing it together, the unconscious symbolism that it carries within it – especially as far as food is concerned – is really profound and wide-ranging.

Each figurine is in fact linked to a month of the year and, if we look carefully, everything seems to make sense, thus creating a complete and coherent description of the passage of time, of human activities, of the alternation between good and evil.

Time, measured by food

January is represented by the butcher and the charcuterie seller, because this is the month in which pigs used to be slaughtered, for the preservation of the meat then eaten throughout the year. Instead, the egg seller is there to represent the month of April: egg means rebirth, the return to life linked to spring and Easter that almost always falls in the fourth month of the year. Summer is a celebration of fruit and vegetables: should it seem strange to you to notice the watermelon there, you need to know that this fruit is even mentioned in the Bible.

And the baker, on the other hand, represents the month of June and the wheat harvest, while the wine seller is there, of course, to symbolise October, when the grape harvest takes place and we get ready to taste the new wine, the vino novello.

The chestnut seller reminds us of November and that Christmas is approaching. The symbol of the latter is the fisherman, with the fish, whose allegorical meaning, from early Christian times, directly refers to the coming of the Saviour.

Thus, unconsciously, the nativity scene is the Christmas construction of our hearth, of the family, of that corner of good intentions that accompanies us into the new year: just like a table setting.

To learn more about family gastronomic traditions connected to Christmas, you may read these articles and try these recipes

Vitello tonnato (Veal with tuna sauce)
Meat ravioli in broth
Christmas table
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