Celebrating Christmas in Rome with Witches, Wishes, and Fish
While living abroad with my Italian boyfriend, I’ve learned about some of the more unusual Christmas traditions in Rome. Before my first Christmas in Rome, I excitedly waited for the Christmas markets to open, imagining eggnog, hot chocolate and Christmas cheer.
I found that many flock to the centre to see the reams of romantic Christmas lights strung along the main shopping streets, such as one of the more popular lit-up streets sponsored by Mercedes, and the massive Fendi display on their storefront.
When I arrived at my first ever Italian Christmas market on Piazza Navona what I found was for me one of the more wacky Christmas traditions out there.
Twinkly towering Christmas trees are dotted around the centre in front of some of the main monuments in Rome and at Termini, the central train station. What makes these trees special are the thousands of notes written by kids and adults alike, containing their Christmas wishes and hopes (often to loved ones who are far away or sick), and pinned to the trees.
Ice rinks are set up in various places and Christmas events such as chocolate markets begin to pop up everywhere.
When I arrived at my first ever Italian Christmas market on Piazza Navona what I found was for me one of the more wacky Christmas traditions out there. In the many stalls positioned prettily among the famous fountains of the oblong piazza was what seemed like a collage of every holiday all in one and a carnival thrown in to boot.
Past a couple of Christmas stalls with miniature individual figurines for a make-your-own crib, there were cackling witches hanging with green light-up eyes giving a Halloween flair, stalls with huge pink ‘I love you’ heart-shaped cushions and balloons suggesting St. Valentine’s Day, as well as carnival shooting games, doughnut machines and a giant carousel.
If you were a bad boy or girl, it’s the Befana’s job and not Santa’s to bring you a lump of coal.
I loved the wackiness of it, but I must admit I did miss my Christmas hot chocolate and boughs of holly. I later found out that the cackling witch on a flying broom (the Befana) plays a big part in Christmas celebrations and brings children sweets and some presents on the 6th of January. If you were a bad boy or girl, it’s her job and not Santa’s to bring you a lump of coal (or candied coal, which is sold in supermarkets). People often buy a puppet or a tree ornament of the Befana for their homes.
The Catholic religion traditionally plays a big part in the celebrations with nativity scenes displayed in many of Rome’s churches, such the very detailed Nativity at the Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano near the Roman Forum. There, master carvers add new figurines each year, include those of celebrities.
A large nativity and Christmas tree are placed on St. Peter’s Square, which is usually unveiled only on Christmas Eve. At noon the next day, the Pope delivers his Christmas message.
Don’t expect turkey, goose or red meat here; instead, there is often a focus on fish.
Christmas Eve is the main event for Italians, who all come together to feast, preparing a selection of Italian dishes that they eat all year round but with a few special ingredients thrown in. Don’t expect turkey, goose or red meat here; instead, there is often a focus on fish. Traditionally, families will go to midnight mass that night, and children will receive their gifts.
Another quirky Christmas tradition is the procession of the statue of Santo Bambino, a statue that is said to have magically painted itself after it was carved in the Garden of Gethsemane. The existing copy (blessed by the Pope in the 1990s after the original was stolen) is placed in the nativity of the church of Santa Maria Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill on Christmas Eve and then paraded down the steps on the 6th of January to a massive waiting crowd.
If you plan to travel to Italy at this time of year, you’ll find that Christmas in Rome features a mishmash of world traditions, religious ceremonies and local legends, which make it a special place to be.
Celebrating Christmas in Rome with Witches, Wishes, and Fish photos by Unsplash.