2006 – Rome; Christmas, Zampognari and Santo Bambino

One would think Christmas is a big deal here in Rome, bigger than anywhere else in the Christian world. One would expect holiday themed store windows and crazy sales, attracting shoppers from all over Italy, and the world. Thankfully Rome hasn’t fallen victim to the American style commercialism associated with the holiday. It’s much more traditional here. There are Christmas markets and a few holiday themed shops, but for the most part, in Rome, Christmas doesn’t really begin till Christmas eve.

This year, Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger), a German who grew up with the concept of the “ol Tannenbaum” ordered the largest tree ever for the Vatican square. At 109-feet tall, this 9 ton silver fir from Calabria finally arrived to Rome on Dec. 13th, more than a week after it was scheduled to arrive. The storms and winds of early December made it really difficult to get the tree to the Vatican. And even when it did arrive, it was missing quite a few branches. But luckily, the crew was able to screw them back in after the tree got vertical. It’s almost as tall as the Obelisk in the center of Piazza San Pietro.

The big event of the holiday is the “Presepio (cresche/manger) reveal”. Every church in Rome builts their own manger scene and the competiion can get fierce. Some are very traditional, some even historic. Some are filled with live actors, some (like the Vatican display) are the scale size of a Judean village. And some (we’ve been told) are very high tech, complete with automatronics, lighting and “special effects”. Word gets around very quickly as to which church has the best manger reproduction; the prize is having the Pope come to have a peek. The proof of the Pope’s visit is that he places a veil on the face of the Mary character after he’s made the pilgrimage. Unfortunately for us, we made plans for Christmas dinner back in Paris so we never go to the see the big Presepio reveal. We snuck a peek behind a few curtains in various churches but we were quickly scolded away and told to come back on Christmas eve. We saw the full scale buildings set up on top of the Spanish Steps and the Old Jeruslaem town square under wraps in the Piazza San Pietro but never got to see the live show, the “presepe vivente.”

Piazza Navona has turned into the La Befana carnival with carny games, cotton candy, licorice, silly prizes and La Befana dolls. La Befana is the Italian version of Santa Claus, in the same context as someone who flies through the land giving good children sweets and bad children coal. Basically, she’s an old witch.


As the story goes, when the wise men came looking for the manger they stopped at the house of la Befana and asked directions. She was too busy and brushed them aside with her broom. Later she realized she made a mistake but when she went to look for them they were gone. And so now she spends every January 6th (epiphany) looking for good and bad children. The good kids get the gifts, the bad ones get a lump of coal. There is a lot of coal (candy) for sale at the mercato. I guess there are a lot of bad children. By the way, the La Befana dolls are really scary; Disney witch scary…

Christmas shopping is everywhere. Some shops even hang a broom on the outside of the storfront to signify it’s a good place for La Befana to buy some noce gifts for good friends and family. There are the crafts markets near the Piazza Navone, the high prices gifts near the Piazza di Spagna and small neighborhoods around the Trastevere and Campo dei Fiori have festive strings of lights hanging overhead, bekoning the shoppers. But don’t look for any discounts before the holiday. There are no pre holiday sales in Rome. The sales come after the holiday season; just like it used to be when we were kids.

Today we saw one of the zampognari (shepherds from the Abruzzo area who come to Rome to play their sheepskin bagpipes for Christmas. They’re all dressed in traditional sheepskin garb. You can check them out on YouTube. Here’s a good example. One of the local jokes is to impersonate the zamognari by humming while holding your nose and hitting your throat with your hand to change the pitch of the drone.

The zampognari supposedly came from the Abruzzo region. It’s been told that these leather clad, sheepskin vested bagpipers actually played for the baby Jesus in the manger, even though Christianity in’t come to the Abruzzo until long after Christ’s death, but then, there are lots of stories about Christianity that require a big leap of faith. For hundreds of years, these zampognari or pifferai have been coming to Rome for Christmas, playing their pipes in excahnge for food, lodgings or “contanti”, cash.

Supposedly, the best place to see them on Christmas eve is at the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli on the Capitoline Hill. Some say that the presepio at Santa Maria d’Aracoeli is the largest in the world. It’s size is due to the celebrity occupant of the church, the Santo Bambino. This lifesize statue of the baby Jesus has been performing miracles for hundreds of years. This infant Jesus was carved from olive-wood from Gethsemane by a Franciscan friar in Jerusalem at the end of 1400. It’s been told that the final painting was completed by the hands of angels.

The sick would call for the Santo Bambino and he would come to them, along with his staff of administrators, in a gilded gold carriage. He was resplendidly dripping in jewels, tokens of thanks from those he has healed. The Bambino liked expensive clothing and jewels. The more jewelry he had, the more the sick were healed.

Then, in 1995, the unthinkable happened. The Bambino was stolen. There was a search but he never was found.  Soon another Bambino was carved to take his place inside the glass alter in the back of the Church. The new one doesn’t come out very often. We’ve heard his only day out is christmas Eve.

Aside from the pomp and pageantry, December is a wonderful time to visit Rome. The days can be very warm with temperatures climbing up towards the high 60’s Fahrenheit. The light is beautiful and the reflections off the Tiber River are amazing.