According to a time-honoured tradition, today is the day that we Italians put up our Christmas trees and proceed to staging our nativities. Let’s imagine, however, that we’re flying over another classic Christmas scene: New York, Fifth Avenue and the Metropolitan Museum. The Christmas tree lights are about to be switched on but, as we get closer, we can see that the Big Apple’s nativity scene isn’t exactly an indigenous one: all the figurines that the decorate the MET’s tree come from an 18th-century Neapolitan crèche.
Perhaps what is so appealing about crèches is that they’re a bit like a Polaroid photo that pops out every year with a sparkle or retro filter-effect. The bustling characters represent our multiple temperaments, although of course nobody wants to identify with the mean innkeeper. There’s a specific script and the characters all gravitate round the central scene or the ox and the ass duo. It’s a timeless set: we look at the world’s most famous crèche, at the Certosa di San Martino in Naples, with the same gaze as the collector Cuciniello did two hundred years ago when he set up and donated the baroque nativity to the monastery. The only figurines that have a certain freedom of movement within the prescribed script are the sheep: it’s not unusual to see them perched on top of the temple or wandering around in random order.
From Manhattan to the nativity shops on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, one makes allowances for their easy-going pastoral demeanour. If not three bags full, our little ovine will be able to provide plenty of pencil shavings; definitely paler than the wool sheared off “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, but gently, and with a few “sharps”, they’ll fit nicely into the tune.