epiphany + piazza navona {rome}

Piazza Navona, Rome
Even though I didn’t grow up in Italy, some of my most intense memories from my childhood date from the two years my family and I spent here. Food obviously looms large, and I’ve written a lot about that in this blog. Visits to the market, tasting my first slice of pizza bianca, gnocchi on Thursdays, the smell of  artichokes in Campo de’ Fiori are all things that are as fresh today as they were decades ago.

But one of my most vivid memories – for both me and my sisters – was the spectacle that happened at Christmas in Piazza Navona. We had grown up in St. Louis and even though we did celebrate Christmas (despite being Jewish) the over the top fun fair atmosphere that transformed this Baroque piazza was one of the most completely magical, exotic and seductive events we had ever seen.

And for me, today, living in Rome, I have to admit that Christmas is just about my favorite time of year here. Lights line streets and store fronts, antique creches are set up in every church and – as always – Piazza Navona is holiday central.

But the Piazza Navona fair isn’t actually about Christmas. Although there is a Santa wandering around these days (there wasn’t back when I was kid) the fair’s reason for being is the Epiphany, which is today, January 6. It was on this day that the three kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus. And – until the globalisation of Christmas – January 6 was the day Italian children traditionally got their gifts. Not from Santa though. And not from the three kings either.

Italian children would go to bed on January 5 hoping that the next morning there would be a stocking full of candy and gifts from a old lady called the Befana. If you had been bad, however, all you got was a lump of coal.

It’s unclear how this tradition started – some say that her name derives from the word epiphany. Others say she has something to do with an ancient heathen goddess. But where ever she came from, it is generally agreed that she is a good housekeeper and so would sweep the floor behind her when she left the houses she visited. Hence the broom she always carries. Which leads many people today to think she is a witch. And the stands that line Piazza Navona sell Befanas that are so witchlike and scary that I can’t imagine any child would enjoy waking up to one of them.

But Santa is not the only recent addition to the Italian Christmas season. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that Christmas tress have become common. Before that, the main decorative element was the creche scene – or presepio – located not only in every church, but in everyone’s home as well.

When I first started celebrating Christmas in Italy as an adult I was a bit hesitant to have a presepio at home. Like I said, I’m Jewish.  A nice non-denominational Christmas tree standing next to the Menorah I can do. But  the idea of having little figurines of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus wasn’t something that came naturally. But one day, browsing through the stands that line Piazza Navona I realized that if I did have a presepio it meant that I could recreate an entire market scene – in miniature – surrounding the main event.

Although everyone complains that the stands surrounding Piazza Navona have become too commercial over the years – selling those ugly witches, plastic toys and piles of candy – there are still at least a half dozen vendors that sell hand crafted presepio items that come straight from Naples.

While some people (like my friend Jane) go all out and buy recreations of store fronts that include moving parts like running water and ringing bells that mimic entire villages, I’m content to stick to the market side of things. And from the sheer quantity of mini food items, I’d say a lot of other people get as obsessed as me.

Teeny tiny crates full of fruit and vegetables, baskets of bread, copper, terracotta and steel pots, bowls of eggs and even cuts of raw meat are all painstakingly recreated and painted by hand. I love the tiny animals – little chickens, pigs and rabbits. My favorite though are the fish – shimmering sardines, rosy octopi and bright green eels.

So I made my yearly visit to Piazza Navona the other day. The smell of caramelized nuts, roasting chestnuts and cotton candy filled the air with the carnival perfume that brought back childhood memories in a heatbeat. While I managed to avoid the scary witches, I did come away with a mini wheel barrow full of potatoes, a crate of sardines and the cutest basket of cabbages I’ve ever seen. And the creche I never imagined I’d have is a tiny bit bigger.
Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome

Befana, Epiphany, Piazza Navona, Rome
The holiday fair in Piazza Navona runs all of December, and closes on January 6, the Epiphany. If you do go today, be forewarned, it will be mobbed.

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  1. says

    I lived in Southern France for 10 years and yes I remember the Epiphany was the true time to give gifts. They still celebrate it with the delicious Galette des Roi, a pastry of sweet almond paste and inside is a feve, a bean or small ceramic figure. Whoever got the feve in their slice was “le Roi” and wore a gold paper crown.

  2. says

    Greetings Elizabeth –
    I am new to your blog and immediately fell in love with the text and of course the images. We live in Umbria – Trevi to be exact, having a home there since 1981. On average we are there 3-4months a year, and on occasion – the full year. When our son Luca was four years old, we visited the Natale childrens toy fair in Piazza Navona. We bought a “transformer” toy figure for him. No sooner had we left his stall, then an arm fell off. I told the vendor what had immediately happened — “e rotto” – non funzione. “I will fix it for you and he proceeded to throw the figure to the ground and stomp on it, while hurling several bestemia in Napolitano at us the toy and the heavens. Here was a pissed Napolitano. Then he gave Luca a new figure and that was that. I am of Napolitano and Sicilian heritage and so growing up with this burst of comotion seemed “normale” Most interesting site and looking forward to visiting it again and again – excellent entertaining blog – the best !!!!!
    With Regards, Michael Venezia

  3. says

    What a wonderfully evocative post. Thanks. I have many friends who are non-Christian but who enjoy our celebrations. I’ve always said “The more the merrier. It’s the spirit that counts.” I love seeing all the ornaments, too. I would love to see your creche!

    Funny, that thing about La Befana and coal. When we were little, and Christmas was approaching, our parents would often say “Be good or Santa won’t bring you any presents, only a bag of coal.” -threat enough for the Crocetti kids. There was never any mention of the old witch in our home. Santa ruled the Yuletide season. It was not until I was an adult and learned about the tradition of La Befana that I figured out where that Christmas threat came from. Poor Befana, her coal was assimilated, but alas she was left behind.

  4. says

    Well, we are losers here in Provence because I didn’t buy the galette des rois that Kelly mentioned today. Maybe tomorrow? Because the good spirit of things is expansive and when it is heart-felt, what else matters?

  5. says

    We were always told that la Befana would leave a gift to those who had Jesus in their heart and that she would find their homes from the light shining in their hearts of those who did. I always have all decorations and the presepio up until la Epifania. (I actually just put the tree and nativity scene just before this post). I was ready for it too. ;)

  6. says

    Spending Christmas in Italy is on my wish list, and now I’ll have to add Epiphany in Rome. Thanks so much for this wonderful as well as irresistible holiday interlude — it’s enough to make me break my vow of holiday decoration chastity!

  7. Engred says

    Oh Elizabeth, too bad you didn’t post a picture of your presepio! I can’t envision how a market stall can be incorporated into Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus – but I am sure you make it work!
    It is actually probably better that I cannot see it, as it would likely start me on another Christmas collection obsession …

  8. Anonymous says

    Thank you for sharing! However Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican – was magnificent. Absolutely greater than gifts or trinkets or fairs- and the
    Hymns, omg- perfect!

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