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Although tourism slows in Rome through November and December as the city settles into a sleepy winter rhythm that lasts unabated until March, during the week of Christmas the streets come alive in a summer-like resurgence with pilgrims here to celebrate the holiday and travelers taking advantage of a great secret: Rome is absolutely magical for the holidays.

While museums and galleries will mostly be closed from December 24-27, a variety of festivals, church-focused events, and generally warm street life make this one of the best times of the year for a visit. Perhaps the most family friendly event is the annual Fair of La Befana. Traditionally, witch-like La Befana (like the Anglo-American figure of St. Nicholas, but haggish and riding a broom) is said to visit the homes of Italian children, leaving sweets and presents for the nice and coal for the naughty. Each year, Piazza Navona fills up with sweets vendors, tarot card readers, carnival rides, and local artisans selling potential Christmas gifts all in imitation and celebration of La Befana.

Keep your eyes open as well for “pifferai”, the shepherd pipers who swarm the city during the holidays, playing their sheepskin bagpipes. A Roman version of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, the pifferai traditionally used to make a pilgrimage on foot from the surrounding country into the city center at Christmas time, playing along the way for food and lodging. Although they’ve (presumably) upgraded to a faster mode of transportation (scooters, one imagines), they can still be recognized walking the streets of the city by their period costume of a sheepskin vest, baggy knee-length trousers, and leather-bound leggings.

Not surprisingly, one of the main sights in the city at this time of the year are the churches, almost all of which put on display their own “presipio”, or nativity scene. Among these the least strictly religious is also the most popular: the city’s official presipio sponsored by the Comune of Rome and located at the Spanish Steps. More a vision of an 18th century street scene than an actual depiction of the birth of Christ, this is the presipio visited, ironically, by the Pope each year on December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception). Traditionally, the Pope places a veil over the figure of Mary before moving on to perform mass at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

One of the five pilgrimage basilicas located within the city walls, Santa Maria Maggiore itself hosts a famous presipio, however, being one of the oldest such scenes in the city, it is steeped in tradition and, like all religious relics, surrounded by controversy. According to some, Santa Maria Maggiore’s is the world’s oldest presipio, crafted by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1280. While, according to others, it dates back even earlier and includes pieces of wood taken from the original manger of baby Jesus.

Another high point on the presipi tour is Santa Maria Aracoeli, which removes its famous life-sized “Santo Bambino” from his usual glass-encased resting place to take place in a staged still life holy birth scene. Rumored to have miraculous healing powers, the Bambino is also said to have been carved from an olive tree of the Garden of Gethsemane.

Finally, the largest of these presipi exhibitions takes place in the Sala di Bramante off of the Piazza del Popolo, where over 200 presipi from various historical periods will be shown this year. Cribs and figures dating as far back as 1500, as well as recent works, are exhibited from 9:30 am – 8 pm daily from mid-November through January 6.

Although church attendance in Italy has dropped precipitously in the past decade as the country becomes more culturally than religiously Catholic, attending high mass at midnight on Christmas Eve is still a well-held tradition. Most churches throughout town will have their doors open that evening until late. St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican will have mass at midnight on Christmas Eve and on the morning of Christmas. Tickets are free but reservations are required.

Like other Italian holidays (and Italian life in general), the Italian Christmas celebrations center mainly around food and traditional holiday fare. Leading up to the big day, Italian pasticcerias begin to fill up with various assortments of panettone and pand’oro, sweetbreads that are generally eaten either for dessert or as a replacement for the usual morning cornetto. Christmas Eve (called La Vigilia here) almost always features meat-free dishes of fish and assorted seafood: Look for the Roman specialty “capitone”, a type of eel, served either grilled or fried. Red meats, often in the form of tortellini, come out on Christmas day as a tribute to the body of Christ. While the two Christmas dinners are generally reserved for family meals at home, it is common practice to eat out on December 26th, St. Stephen’s Day, which the Italians also reserve as a holiday.

This holiday season, Context is joining in the festivities by offering several special itineraries. On December 20th we’ve obtained permission for a special Afterhours Vatican visit. What better holiday gift than to have one of the world’s most famous museums to yourself! In addition, American Academy fellow and Context docent Elisa Silva has designed a special itinerary focusing on the representation of Roman architecture in 17th century prints. Views of Baroque Rome allows us to see how the artist, Giovanni Battista Falda, turned already amazing pieces of architecture into dramatic pieces of theater for pilgrims, tourists, and collectors.

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