Welcome to the silly season. If you’ve been wandering around the centro storico lately you’ll have noticed Rome lighting up like one big bauble on a Christmas tree. The Eternal City is, of course, where long ago the festivity all began and modern-day Romans continue Christmas traditions with panache. Here are some suggestions for how to maximise the city’s charms throughout December and up until Epiphany on 6th January 2013.
Start your day like an Italian and sample some traditional Christmas cake with your coffee. The local equivalent of Christmas pudding includes various kinds of delicate sweet bread. These are known as panettone (from Milan), pangiallo (from Rome) and pandoro (from Verona). Dome-shaped boxes of the delectable stuff can be found piled high in supermarkets, bakeries (panefici or panetterie), pastry shops (pasticcerie) and markets all over the city.
Explore a Christmas Market
Throughout December, many Roman piazzas become home to twinkling markets (i mercatini di natale). For around 100 years, the best market of all has been popping up in magical Piazza Navona. Here you can find live entertainment, a carousel, a life-size nativity scene, as well as food and hot wine. The stalls themselves are spilling over with gift potential: handicrafts, toys, decorations, sweets, nativity figures etc. The market’s atmosphere reaches a crescendo, particularly for kids, on the 6th of January when La befana (the friendly Christmas witch) makes an appearance. The market is open from 10.00 am to 1.00 am every day (http://tinyurl.com/navonamarket) until Epiphany.
Admire Some Christmas Bling
1) The nativity scene (presepe or presepio) traditionally takes first place in terms of Italian Christmas decorating. Nativity scenes appear in most churches and one of the most impressive can be found at the Vatican in the middle of Piazza San Pietro. This year’s presepio is around 150 square metres in size, includes over 100 terracotta statues, features cinematic lighting and a rugged background evoking the Stones of Matera (http://tinyurl.com/piazzasanpietro). For some more targeted presepio action, you could also visit the exhibition ‘100 Presepi’ in the Sala del Bramante at the Piazza del Popolo. The nativity scenes on show include a mix of modern interpretations and 400 year-old classics. The exhibition is open every day until 6th January 2013, from 9.30am to 8.00pm, and booking is required (http://tinyurl.com/100presepi).
2) Sparkling Christmas trees come a close second after nativity scenes and in Rome you can find some grand examples at key spots like the Colosseum, Piazza Venezia, Piazza di Spagna, the Pincio, the Vatican (Piazza San Pietro), and the Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio).
3) This year ushers in the first Santa Claus Tour of Rome (il Tour di Babbo Natale). From 8th to 12th December 2012, kids big and small can join an artsy flash mob of 30 Santa Clauses aboard a TramBus Open entirely covered in Christmas lights. While touring the city’s sights, lottery tickets (€ 2.50 each) can be purchased on board with proceeds going to various children’s charities. Dates, locations and departure times are listed (in Italian) on this site: http://tinyurl.com/babbonataletour.
Meet the Birthday Boy…
Although presepi tend to appear from 8th December (the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception) onwards, the star of the show doesn’t usually make an appearance until Christmas Eve. Among all statues of the baby Jesus the most beloved by Romans is that of the Holy Child (Santo Bambino), which dates back to the 1500s and is found in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven (Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli). This church crowns the Campidoglio; around which civic and sacred life in Rome has centred since antiquity. Each year Roman children leave messages for the Santo Bambino and at midnight on Christmas Eve the little statue is placed in the church’s presepio. On the 6th of January, thousands of people then flock to see the procession of the statue up and down church’s steep steps.
…and/or Meet His Homeboy, the Pope
On Christmas Eve a huge crowd gathers in Piazza San Pietro to watch the Pope deliver midnight mass. Then at midday on Christmas day, the big man will bless the once-again crowded piazza from his apartment window.
Then Eat Some More Cake
Now, having started the day with a slice of panettone to accompany your coffee, why not finish it off with another slice, this time with a nice glass of chilled Moscato?