Rome in Advent and at Christmastide is unlike any other city in the world, including itself at other times of the year. Other cities clean up before they spruce up. Rome, not so much. Decorations go over the grime, or sometimes seem to emerge from it. In some quarters, the Christmas lights don’t seem to be hung out, as simply turned on.
The tree in the central square, Piazza Venezia – so called because on it sits the ancient Venetian embassy to the Papal States (from the balcony of which Mussolini liked to give speeches) – is a perennial subject of local polemics, but would never make the list of the top 100 municipal Christmas trees in Europe.
Public transport – always overtaxed and under-serviced – is impossibly crowded, especially on the main lines that run through the city’s historic centre. Pavements – always cramped during business hours – swell to overflowing, and pedestrians spill into the streets, slowing traffic. There’s a stretch of the Via del Corso that runs between Piazza Venezia and Piazza del Popolo that sometimes simply becomes, in essence, a de facto pedestrian zone.
That’s not the whole story, though.
Until very recently, Romans have been good about keeping the “Christmas creep” in check, only putting Christmas decor out on or after December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. That’s the traditional date for setting out the Christmas crib, as well. Rome is not quite Naples in this regard, but its presepi are still ubiquitous. Every household has one – even the atheists, even the communists (in Italy, and in Rome particularly, the latter does not always imply the former). They are often remarkably ornate affairs: themed sets, period pieces, multi-levelled displays, even whole rooms dedicated to the scene and converted to the purpose for the stretch of time.
The domestic scenes are occasions for visiting – “Come over and see what we’ve done with our crib this year!” – and such visits usually involve generous helpings of seasonal fare, especially panettone and my favourite, pandoro (a traditional sweet bread), washed down with equally generous quantities of prosecco.
Eating, drinking and talking are Romans’ three inveterate pastimes. There’s even a saying: life is what happens while breaking from table. At Christmastide, life and table in Rome become perfectly synchronised: they are functions of one another.
It’s a great experience to tour the churches, as well, to see what each has done this year. Their cribs are often quite elaborate: even small neighbourhood parish churches and oratories will have settings that boast dozens of figurines of varying height, electric lighting built into the village scenes, motorised props, even running water. They’re great fun.
About town, there are the chestnut vendors on every corner. They come out early, usually with the first really steep drop in temperature. They stick around, even if the weather turns warm – and it almost invariably does, at least for a couple of weeks in October or November. By December, the city streets are redolent with their roasting, and it is delightful.
Piazza Navona hosts a Christmas fair each year, which runs from early December, and really gets going from l’Immacolata through to Epiphany, or la befana in the local dialect. The feast on January 6 is marked by the arrival of an old crone bearing sweet treats and trinkets for small children.
The stockings that are hung in Anglophone jurisdictions and stuffed on Christmas Eve are filled in the night between January 5 and January 6 in Rome. This year la befana happens to fall on a Sunday, but Romans mark the feast on the day.
There are other mercatini in the city, but the one in Piazza Navona is emblematic. A hodgepodge of vendors: some peddling seasonal knick-knacks, others baked goods or other confections. Some sell embroidery or other textiles, while other stalls offer games for children, from bean bag toss to BB gun shooting ranges. (I remember my surprise, many years ago now, on discovering the pistols at one such stall appeared to be 9mm Berettas retrofitted with pneumatics, while the long guns at another looked a lot like converted M1 carbines.) There’s also a carousel most years, and acres of pralines and cotton candy.
Rome is a lot of things, but one thing it is not is a museum. This is a city in which people live, and it shows – sometimes a little too much – in the dirt and the grit and the grime and the gridlock and the smog and the traffic. You can hear it in the horns and the hollering pedestrians, all of which increase in volume and intensity as Christmas approaches, and you can feel it in the oases of seasonal cheerfulness over which these Romans squabble and complain each year, as if on cue, and then set about enjoying with carefree tenacity (or perhaps tenacious nonchalance), until it’s time to go back to work.