Lazio and its sacred and profane Christmas

And here we are in Lazio! Christmas season here is special for the presence of the Pope in Rome. But also for the traditional folk celebration of Befana everywhere in the region.

Lazio fill in of Christmas events and with Rome and the Vatican city become the centre of the Christian Christmas festivities.

Let’s start with Rome. It dresses up and all the monuments are even more striking under the Christmas lights.


The Vatican city draws big crowds of pilgrims in the city.

The Christmas celebrations begin on the 8th of December with the feast of Immaculate Conception. Since 1958 the appointment on this day is at the Spanish Steps where the Pope brings flowers to the statue of Immaculate.

In Rome almost every church celebrate the Midnight Mass, but the most solemn takes place in St. Peter’s Basilica. And people come from everywhere to attend the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican, followed the next morning by the pastoral message of the Pope.


The most anticipated tradition in Lazio is certainly the arrival of Befana on the 6th of January. Its origins come from the pagan celebrations of the changing in the solar year. The profane figures of gods and nature mixed up with the sacred arrival of the Three Wise Men creating the Befana figure. An ugly old lady dressed as a witch and travelling on a broom. In the last two centuries she has brought toys and sweets to good children and coal to the bad ones.

In Rome “Viva la Befana” is considered one of the largest national annual events. It is a traditional folk procession on the morning of 6th of January, starting from Castel Sant’Angelo to arrive in Piazza San Pietro. The Three Wise Men bearing the traditional gifts are followed by the Befana and a thousand people in period costume.

In Viterbo a curious event is dedicated to Befana. The tradition of the longest Befana Stocking in the world. The goal is to enter the Guinness Book of World Records! Hundred Befane support the mega stocking and a dozen of vintage Fiat 500.

In the three nights preceding the Epiphany, also in Gradoli a bizarre event is celebrated. The traditional Tantavecchie. In the evening people of all ages gather in the central square of the little town armed with tools to generate much noise as possible. From simple pot lids used as dishes orchestra to whistles, ox horns, tin cans and bells of various sizes. The orchestra slowly walks through the streets of Gradoli creating a “symphony” so discordant as deafening. All of it to scare away witches and malign spirits.

Lazio is also where the tradition of the crib is born.

In 1223 St. Francis and the noble lord of Greccio, Giovanni Velita, staged the first live nativity scene. Greccio is a small town located on the side of the Sabine Mountains, built on a rock, in a place nearly impossible to reach. At the announcement of the herald the villagers walked in procession to a cave to worship Jesus. The little baby, a doll made by Madonna Alticama, wife of Velita, seemed to come to life in the arms of Francis. With an unspeakable joy, he announced the birth of Jesus as taken place in a similar time, a cold evening and in absolute poverty, for the salvation of everyone on earth.


Institution of the Crib at Greccio, in Basilica of Saint Francis Assisi, painted by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)

Since then in Greccio worshippers and visitors arrive during Christmas period to attend the living historical representation, in medieval costume, of the nativity scene.

The most famous Roman crib is in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Here a the fifteenth century Baby Jesus statue was especially venerated, now it has been replaced after the theft of 1994. In front of this crib all children are allowed to recite a short poem or a small sermon.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II inaugurated the tradition of setting up a nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, on the occasion of Christmas.

In Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore there is still a beautiful nativity scene with one of the earliest carved figurines made by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1291.

Another Roman tradition of the crib is the blessing that the Pope gives to the Baby Jesus figurines. The kids of Rome bring their figurines at the Vatican on the last Sunday before Christmas and after the blessing they place them back in their home crib.

In Rome you cannot miss another event. The lightening of the large tree in St. Peter’s Square on the 14th of December. Symbol of Christmas, the tree is always donated by the Christian communities of the Alps.

We don’t want to miss a mention of Amatrice, a beautiful mountain town hardly hit by the earthquake. This year means of Civil Protection and bulldozers, useful to the reconstruction, surround a Christmas tree and a crib.

The other towns in Lazio come alive in this period with street markets of all types, where to find objects and local food and wine.

We need to leave now and off we go to next stop!

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