Dec 8, 2009

Shopping for saints and making a scene

The painted turn of the century merry-go-round or Bernini’s Four Rivers fountain? Dodge the man on stilts or drop a coin in the hat by the flame eater juggling torches across the street from the Brazilian Embassy? Get a chocolate tartufo at Tre Scalini first, or stroll past the shooting gallery?

Every year, come Christmas, I never know where to start in Piazza Navona. Fifty-odd stalls of every kind line the piazza’s perimeter. The aroma of caramel burning from the croccante vendor is intoxicating. The typical holiday season hard, caramelized slab with mixed almonds and hazelnuts, made by spreading the candy out onto a cold greased work surface and cutting it before it hardens with a huge knife, leaves the unchanging flavor of Natale stuck to my teeth.

Santa Claus–whose name here is Babbo Natale–and the Befana (an old woman who brings gifts on January 6th–the Epiphany–aboard her flying broom) sit side by side on a stuffed reindeer-drawn carriage and children drop letters in their lap.

I rush over to the kind old man that sells nativity scene statuettes. He recognizes me every year when I pass his stall, or perhaps he is just very polite. My son picks out his shepherd, and we get sucked back into the vortex of lights, laughter, cotton candy and Christmas spirit.

Il presepe is a miniature Bethlehem. December 8th is crèche construction day here in Italy.
The Christmas tree is a late addition to Italian seasonal celebrations. The home built nativity scene with flour dusted brown paper bags as mountains, a pocket mirror as a duck pond and pin holes punched in blue cardboard for a starry sky above the cork covered manger was my thing as a child. It got built early on and taken down the day after Befana. Only recently, fueled by my son’s natural and bubbling Christmas spirit, have I begun constructing a Nativity again. Many parts of it are edible.

The first thing to do is collect the moss, which will carpet the model Bethlehem village flooring. We usually take a nice hike up by the Bracciano Lake or the Manziana forest in the outskirts of Rome on the weekend, and return home with a little patches of green velvet, and high on clean, crisp winter oxygen.
The next step is elevation. The construction needs to be visible and not get tripped into during festive dancing or galloping around the house. We raise our presepe on an old, chipped dessert trolley, which we keep in the cellar and wheel out annually for the occasion.
We then proceed to lighting, this is the trickiest part, since it needs to be well planned. Each little house and strategic site needs a light, so untangling Christmas lights and arranging them accordingly is very important.
We then build mountains, hills, a riverbed and whatever our fantasy landscape requires. The mountains are brown paper bags, the hills get covered with our precious moss, the stream is a strip of neatly cut aluminum foil. We scatter the little houses in increasing size, the little ones in the back, and the larger ones in the foreground, for optimum perspective, ending with a prominent manger. Cork lines the rooftops, while flour, styrofoam and cotton wool act as snow.

Then the village starts to populate with a variety of characters, each picked carefully and placed in a strategic position. There have been books written on how to build the presepe, and each character statuette has a meaning and a purpose. The Holy family of course, is the starring cast. You must leave the straw filled manger empty of course until Christmas Eve, until the Babe’s birth; include the fishmonger in her turn of the century costume, holding up her basket of symbolic fish; the chestnut seller, with a light shining through his little stove reproducing the embers; the shepherds and their flocks of sheep represent the believers gathered for the miraculous birth; the steer and the donkey and a few scattered chickens, geese, palm trees, the comet over the cave and a duck pond turn our Nativity into a festive mixture of Israel, early 1900 Napoli and a snowy Alpine location.


  1. Hi Lola,
    thank you for sharing. Wonderful pics. If you want to calm down with a latte macciato come and visit to listen to some music.
    Hugs Myriam

  2. Oh how I miss the Piazza Navona at Christmas - especially the chocolate covered torrone and those presepe figurines.

  3. Traditions are such an important thing in a child's life. It is very grounding for them and creates such wonderful memories.

  4. forgot to tell you I love your presepio.

  5. Nice! Thanks for sharing!



  6. It must be so lovely for you to be back at home with your gorgeous son, Lola.

    I love these photos and the thought of you living in a place with so much beauty and fun


  7. Such a wonderful and very special Christmas tradition...the true meaniing of Christmas! This is one to really cherish!

  8. I loved your interesting post, thank you so much for sharing it with us

  9. The Christmas village is one tradition that came with me and was part of my children's lives as well. I will have to hurry and put mine up soon.

    p.s. I have a new blog, Italian for beginners. You don't mind if I send people to this post?

    Love every one of your stories, pictures, adventures, recipes.

    Ciao cara.

  10. Piazza Navona at Christmastime,
    I dream of it ever since I left Rome!
    The smells, the presepi from Naples, the bagpipe player in Abruzzi costums, everything.
    Thank you for the happy memories.

    Nowadays customs have changed, but when I was a teenager, Babbo Natale did not bring gifts, it was La Befana on the night of Three King's day who brough gifts (or black coal, if one had been naughty). Christmas Eve was spent eating several courses of fish, for hours on end, until it was time to go to midnight mass.

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  12. Thank you everyone for your lovely comments.
    Rosaria– I've visited the new blog and I love it. Casa mia è casa tua, quindi everyone is welcome!
    Merisi– Exactly! W la Befana. I will blog another post soon about that exactly, how Christmas has become a commercial exploitation of tradition. Christmas eve was all about family, eating and the birth of Jesus. Now it's only gifts!
    I've been very good this year so no coal for me...

  13. what a cool nativty and fun to have with E. first i have hear of the epiphany witch as well. i love this time of year!

  14. I love this tradition! Very cool.

  15. My grandfather used to dislike the Christmas tree and accepted only 'presepe' and 'befana'. And presents were given to kids only during 'Befana', on the 6th of January. Well, he was the religious one.

  16. How wonderful! What a beautiful nativity!

    When I was in Rome in 2008 the Four Rivers was covered in scaffolding ... I am coming back in May... is it uncovered?! I am beside myself!

  17. Il presepe e' bellissimo. Hai catturato perfettamente il sentimento e l'aria di Natale specificamente Romana della nostra infanzia. Nostalgia...As always, your entries are beautfully written and nudge at my heart with common memories.

  18. Adri mi ha passato il link e devo dire che ho adorato questo pezzo. E ti dico di piu''anno ai miei ho chiesto di regalarmi un presepe perche' quello che avevo era stato rubato. Non volevo che Penelope crescesse senza presepe. Ho amato i dettagli degli specchi come laghetti di acqua, e cartoncino come montagne e ovviamente tanto tanto muschio e sassolini. Adesso lo vado a fare. Brava Ele! Tanti auguri di Buon Natale. Speriamo di beccarci a Roma al piu' presto.

  19. How adorable is that? We love wandering around town to look at the presepi. Piazza Navona is so much fun at Christmas! BTW, my friend Francesca has a fit every time she sees stalls selling La Befana with a witch's hat instead of a handkerchief. "She is not a witch! She is a casalinga!" she laments.

  20. Eli, ti seguo sempre. Brava! Quest'anno ha un significato in piu' per me adesso che sono diventata nonna.

    Buon Natale a te, Elliot, Giovanni
    e mamma. Un bacio, Clem

  21. Ciao Lola, Beautiful festive post, you really give a sense of feel at Piazza Navona! Christmas Time :) Nuts for those nuts!

  22. I think that's lovely! Very well done!

    I remember, from my youth, going to church on Christmas morning and seeing the Baby Jesus finally in his place in the Nativity Scene on the front lawn of Saint Gregory's. All of us kids waited patiently for him to be born each year, and we wished him "Happy Birthday!" as we went by. Well, I did, anyway.

  23. I think that's lovely! Very well done!

    I remember, from my youth, going to church on Christmas morning and seeing the Baby Jesus finally in his place in the Nativity Scene on the front lawn of Saint Gregory's. All of us kids waited patiently for him to be born each year, and we wished him "Happy Birthday!" as we went by. Well, I did, anyway.

  24. I LOVED this post. Thank you, E.


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