|A haunting musical sound very similar to the bagpipe often makes Rome's Christmas visitors think they're in Edinburgh or on the Scottish moors. Actually, the zampognari and pifferai (shepherd pipers originally from the mountain villages around Rome or from the Abruzzi region, pictured at left) are a uniquely Roman Christmas tradition. Dressed in criss-crossed leather leggings, short bulky trousers that are buckled just below the knee, vests of sheepskin (unfortunately now often replaced by more "fashionable" synthetics), velvet jackets and peaked caps, these pipers are a contemporary link to the original shepherds that visited the child in the manger in Bethlehem.|
In earlier times, scores of pifferai walked the hundred or so miles to the city, stopping along the way to play their sheepskin bagpipes in exchange for food and lodgings. Now they are more apt to travel by bus or train, but they still crowd into the church of Aracoeli on Christmas eve, to enliven the Midnight Mass with their tunes.
|The original manger is the inspiration for another of Rome's Christmas traditions, the presepio or Christmas crib. Most people do not realize that from approximately December 8th to January 6 (Epiphany), ninety percent of the city's churches set up a nativity scene. Some are quite elaborate, some are of dubious artistic quality, others are extremely old and valuable, but almost all their settings are beautiful, and it's easy to spend a pleasant morning or afternoon visiting several of them.|
Before starting your tour of the city's homemade cribs, you might want to stop at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to view five strips of wood from the original manger itself. There is also an oratory dedicated to the crib theme, dating back to the 7th century when the church was named Beata Maria ad Praesepe (Blessed Mary of the Crib).
|The next stop on the presepio circuit is Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill. According to the authoritative Georgina Masson, this is the world's most famous nativity scene, mainly thanks to its celebrity occupant, the Santo Bambino. Said to have been carved from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, this lifesize statue of the Holy Child is clothed in luxurious fabrics and covered with precious objects donated by believers. For centuries he has been considered to possess miraculous healing powers. In the past he was often taken to visit the sick and at one time he had his own coach. From time to time he has been stolen - presumably to work a miracle on demand - then returned to the church. Consequently he is now kept in a glass case in the sacristy, but at Christmas he is brought out and placed in the manger, beneath a brilliant heavenly sky and surrounded by a host of exquisitely crafted pilgrims and their flocks.|
As you stroll the streets during the Christmas season, pop into every house of worship you pass. Small neighborhood churches may have simple displays with only a few lovingly collected figurines, while some of the larger churches such as Il Gesù, Sant'Ignazio, San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria in Trastevere have elaborate dioramas as big as your child's bedroom, with blacksmiths and housewives busy at work, tiny fireplaces ablaze, the heavenly host floating above waxing and waning stars, rosy dawns, and even a comet endlessly leading the way across the sky.
Not all the presepi are in churches, either. You might encounter your first one as you step off the train in the Stazione Termini (pictured at right). The miniature sheep huddled in front of a knee-high Arch of Janus, next to the Porta San Paolo and a segment of ancient Roman wall, are so perfectly crafted that photographs can make them seem real. The City of Rome builds its official crêche on the second ramp of the Spanish Steps, and not surprisingly, it is almost willfully anti-clerical. A scaled-down replica of an entire 18th-century street, it features a tavern called "The Turks" and one of the Pasquino statues upon which irreverent Romans used to pin their anonymous criticisms of the Popes. Not to be outdone by the municipal authorities, the Vatican's manger in St. Peter's Square is larger than lifesize, with huge hunks of fake sheep's cheese, mounds of real straw, and a net to catch the coins of the faithful. It is usually set in front of something you don't see too often in Rome: a Christmas tree.
|If you can't get to Rome in December, there are at least two churches with year-round nativity scenes. SS. Cosma e Damiano, flanking the main entrance to the Roman Forum, has an enormous presepio. A masterpiece of 17th-century Naples, which is generally considered the high point of nativity scene craftsmanship, it features hundreds of figures, fifty angels and scores of animals. The other permanent crêche is in the church of S. Maria in Via (pictured at left). Another Neapolitan jewel, it boasts sumptuous costumes of velvet, silk, brocade, satin and leather, magnificent flying angels and the obligatory smoking Vesuvius.|
Finally, for those who really love nativity scenes, there is the little-known Museo Tipologico Internazionale del Presepio. It is full of cribs from thirty countries ranging from South America to the Far East. The more than 3000 figurines are made from paper, wax, shells, lead, corn husks, tin, wood, marzipan, bread, hay, leaves, fabric, cork, terra cotta, sugar, biscuit - just about anything you can imagine. One entire crêche is built inside a hazelnut shell, and a Communist-era Polish one is topped by a red star. My favorite is a Czechoslovakian one made of paper.
If you are a true devotee, the museum offers a course each year (usually in October) where you can learn about the techniques and materials used to make a manger scene. If you're not a do-it-yourselfer, end your presepio tour in Piazza Navona, where a host of stands sell crib figurines ranging from inexpensive baubles to pricey masterpieces.
To visit the nativity scenes, remember that churches are generally open from quite early in the morning till noon or 12:30, then again from 3:30 or 4 to 7 p.m. The only exceptions are the major basilicas, which remain open all day, and S. Maria in Via, which is open 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m. except for Sundays and holidays, when it closes for lunch.
The Museo Tipologico Internazionale del Presepio (Via Tor de' Conti 31A) is operated solely by volunteers, so it is open only from October to May, 6-8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Additional hours are: from December 24 to January 6, 4-8 p.m. Monday to Friday; and on holidays 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-8 p.m. The museum is located in the basement of the church of SS. Quirico e Giulitta, and only a small nameplate can be seen from the street. Follow the long corridors and the blue and yellow electric lights to the exhibits. Admission is free but donations are welcome.
The Christmas Fair in Piazza Navona lasts from December 8th to January 6th.
The Museo Tipologico Internazionale del Presepio (Via Tor de' Conti 31A) is operated solely by volunteers, so it is open only from October to May, 6-8 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Additional hours are: from December 24 to January 6, 4-8 p.m. Monday to Friday; and on holidays 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-8 p.m. The museum is located in the basement of the church of SS. Quirico e Giulitta, and only a small nameplate can be seen from the street. Follow the long corridors and the blue and yellow electric lights to the exhibits. Admission is free but donations are welcome. The Christmas Fair in Piazza Navona lasts from December 8th to January 6th.