The Holiday Season has arrived in Rome and the piazzas are popping with sparkle and spirit.
Piazza Navona transforms into a wonderland of a holiday market, and kids love it! Like a carnival, loads of stalls are set up, selling everything from nativity sets with witches (the Roman christmas legend features the Befana) to traditional roasted pork sandwiches (porchetta). There are rides for little ones and carnival games for older kids — but be careful, many times the prize can be a bottle of Spumante!
Every year, Hanukkah is celebrated with the lighting of candles on a gigantic menorah in Piazza Barberini.
One of my favorite things to do during the season is to see how many nativity sets I can find. Romans call them presepii, and they are everywhere. Some of the most spectacular:
- St. Peter’s Basilica has a gigantic, life-sized display that only gets fully revealed on Christmas Day. Each year, a different nation gets the honor of donating the square’s tree.
- S. Maria Maggiore holds an Arnolfo di Cambrio marble presepio thought to be the oldest in Italy (1289AD).
- The Spanish Steps crib features an 18th century scene complete with a miniaturePasquino statue.
- SS. Cosma e Damiano, by the forum, has a year-round room-sized scene from Naples (17th century), which features hundreds of figures, replicas of the ruins, and moving fishmongers and blacksmiths.
- Termini train station, on via Giolitti, has a large set with miniature sheep and a knee-high Arch of Janus, making it the most utterly Roman presepio.
Rome even has a museum dedicated to the art of nativity sets. It’s called Museo Presepio (by appointment only). And each year, the Piazza del Popolo shows a collection of over 200 presepii in the Sale di Bramante (centopresepi.it). Happy hunting!
The friendly Christmas Witch — lots of 'em.
Like Santa Claus, La Befana visits children, leaving them sweets and presents, only on Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas.
For Christians, Epiphany marks the day when three wise men visited baby Jesus, bearing gifts. The legend says they met La Befana along their journey, but she was too busy to go with. Later, she changed her mind and set off to find the infant and bring him presents. She’s been searching ever since, leaving each child a gift.