“I’ll tell you why you feel homesick here,” said Jeremy one morning at breakfast, as he lit up his fourth cigarette of the morning so far. “It’s partly to do with the weather.” “The weather? But the weather’s great!” I answered in disbelief. “Precisely!” said Jeremy. “Imagine you were back in the UK now. What would it be like?” He continued without giving me time to consider or formulate a reply to his question. “It would be cold, and you would be sitting snugly in front of a roaring fire. You might even have your Christmas decorations up by now. You’d be feeling cosy and full of Christmas spirit. And it was probably the same in Krautland, what with the Christmas markets and mulled wine and all that bollocks, wasn’t it?” He had a point, Jeremy did. We were well into December now, but it might as well have been Easter, or May Day or Yom Kippur for all the Christmas spirit that hung in the air. “You know, I think you’re right!” I said excitedly. “I’m going to go out today and buy some Christmas decorations for my room.” “Well, while you’re out, why not pop down to Via San Gregorio Armeno and have a look at the cribs? That’ll have you feeling nice and Christmassy in no time.”
I had heard about these cribs or presepi before. Naples was, my students kept telling me, famous all over the world for them. I was cynical, as when a Neapolitan tells you that something is “world famous”, what he generally means is “world famous in Naples”. But I decided to do what Jeremy had suggested and take a look at them. “Only go in the evening when it’s dark,” warned Jeremy, “otherwise you won’t appreciate the full atmosphere of the place.”
Three hours later, I had been into town and returned and was sitting on my bed tearing impatiently at packs of tinsel, fairy lights, candles, crepe paper and sundry Christmas tree baubles and decorations. Shit! The Christmas tree! I didn’t have one! Well, there was nothing I could do about that. Having just coughed up 800 000 lire for a flight home, I could ill afford a Christmas tree. I’d just have to make do. Hunting around in one of the cupboards of my room, I came across what looked like the top of a tattered, old artificial tree. That would do. I taped it to the top of the standing lamp in the corner, covered the whole Heath-Robinson contraption in fairy lights, and turned it on to see if it worked before I went to the trouble of covering it in baubles and tacky plastic angels. It did, and so I festooned it with as much ornamentation as it would bear, before spending the rest of the afternoon cutting and folding the crepe paper to make hanging decorations and streamers for the ceiling. It looked good when it was finished; flamboyant and gaudy, and all in the worst possible taste, just as good Christmas decorations should be.
“Christ on a bike!” exclaimed Jeremy when he saw them. “It looks like you’ve had Slade round to lend you a hand!” We opened a beer each. I didn’t have any mulled wine and, besides, it was too warm. I switched on the fairy lights while Jeremy looked at me, shaking his head in mock pity. And then I decided that it was about time I went down to see these cribs. Via San Gregorio Armeno, in the historical centre of Naples, was heaving. On both sides of the street were stalls selling tiny, life-like figures in exquisitely made clothes. Every detail of these figurines was perfect: the gnarled fingers and glass eyes; the terracotta heads and hand-sewn leather shoes. I’ve never been one for dolls and puppets and the like, but these really were beautiful. Some stalls were selling various crib accessories: miniature silver swords, replacement limbs, wine jugs, cooking utensils and hand-carts. Others specialised in animals: donkeys, caged pigs and chickens, stubborn mules – even miniature eels.
Then came the presepi themselves – from small shoebox-sized ones to whopping artificial caverns as big as a room, all of them made from cork, moss and bark, just as they had been for centuries – indeed, the origins of the Neapolitan crib can be traced back to 1025. There were novelty cribs, some made of pasta, others made entirely of wool, copper piping, wood or buttons. Others had fountains and waterfalls with real running water, or pizza ovens complete with flickering orange flames. One experimental crib maker had even tried to create a present-day Neapolitan setting, with battered Fiats, figurines in designers sunglasses and graffiti on every building. There was no doubt that he had succeeded in evoking the atmosphere of the modern city, but I was not at all sure about why on earth he had wanted to do so. “Ha! Ha!” I laughed. “That one there looks like Umberto Bossi!” “That’s because it is Umberto Bossi,” came the reply from the figurine’s creator. It was, he explained, a tradition in Naples to add figurines of famous people, those who had excelled themselves, for good or bad, over the year that had just passed, or who had, perhaps, died. Over the years, in addition to the crackpot leader of the Northern League, I have also come across figures of Padre Pio, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Princess Diana and Osama Bin Laden.
Fascinating as these modern day recreations were, it was the old traditional presepe that I loved the most and I asked a sinister-looking man with a three-day beard, how much his gargantuan crib – just the shell, mind you, for the figurines would have to be bought and added separately – would set me back. “Two and a half million lire. Delivery not included.” It would no doubt take me a few years, but I promised myself there and then that, when I finally had my own house, with a little room to spare, I would purchase one of these Neapolitan masterpieces and add to it every year. Who knows? It might even grow to rival the one commissioned by Bourbon monarch Charles III, in the 18thcentury, for the Royal Palace in Naples. In that crib, baby Jesus lay sleeping in the manger, with ancient coins, real silver and precious jewels scattered around him, and over 150 angels suspended above. I would have to have 200.