New Year’s in Rome

Or, Father Jerabek Shares His Blurry Photos

Last night I walked with a friend up to the Janiculum Hill (near St. Peter’s), which has a good view of the city, to see the fireworks. It’s impressive, because pretty much every neighborhood of the city has its own display, and then there is the bigger city display (which wasn’t very good this year). Italians will tell you that all of the fireworks used to be much more impressive before the economic crisis. Alas. In any event, it was still fun to watch the city’s skyline “exploding” around midnight. I don’t think they worry as much about fire safety over here.

Pretty bad photo, but you can sort of make out the fact that there are fireworks rising across pretty much the entire horizon.

Today I had planned to go with some friends to this museum exhibit. After all, it features all kinds of opulent paraphernalia relating to St. Januarius – what better way to ring in January? But when we got to the museum, there was an enormous line. It will have to wait a bit longer.

In fact, the streets were absolutely full of people today. It was really a bit worse even than the worst summer tourism day that I can remember. This was my first New Year’s in Rome and it is obvious that the Italians take this day seriously for going out, strolling around, enjoying family, buying balloons for their children, etc. A lot of shops were closed, but the ones that were open were busy.

Here is a shot of the square in front of the Pantheon:

People everywhere. Some of the streets were even more packed.

Near the Pantheon, there is a recently-opened Lindt store. Here is a photo I took of it just before Christmas:

Obey the gold bear, enter the store.

What with the fact that Lindt Chocolate is the best out there, we dutifully stopped for a visit today, even in spite of the crowds. They had the new coconut-flavored truffles, but sadly, they did not have peanut butter or mint, two flavors which are probably not as popular in this part of Europe. The cost for the truffles: €39.90 per kilo (basically, $25/lb.).

The store was mobbed. They also sell various types of foo-foo hot chocolates, coffees, pastries, ice creams, etc.

Italians are gearing up for another round of gift-giving. On January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, there is a traditional exchange of gifts (as well as the one that occurs on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, depending on the family’s custom – when Santa Claus, or “Babbo Natale” comes). While in many Catholic countries, the Feast of the Epiphany is the occasion for the Three Magi Kings to bring gifts to children, in Italy they have the curious custom of an old woman riding a broom called “La Befana” (a corruption of the Italian word for “Epiphany”) who brings gifts.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, instead of the cookies and milk that one often leaves for Santa Claus, La Befana prefers a glass of wine and some regional treats to be left out. Sounds like a pretty good deal! I can imagine an Italian family, where the kids go to the fridge to get the day-to-day table wine to pour a glass for La Befana, and Mom and Dad say, “No, honey, here, let’s use this [nicer] bottle for La Befana!” I’m sure it makes late-nite gift-wrapping easier…

A typical La Befana home decoration. Image from Wikimedia Commons

It just occurred to me: I wonder if some group has taken advantage of the La Befana wine/snack custom to decry drinking and driving, advocating that children should put out cups of coffee instead?

Anyhow, this web site reports one history of La Befana that connects her with the Three Kings. As with most legends, there is probably a panel of scholars somewhere who stand ready to debunk the whole thing, but I think this is rather nice:

La Befana has been an Italian tradition since the XIII century and comes from Christian legend rather than popular culture. The story is that la Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men who asked her to lead them to the stable where the baby Jesus lay in a manger. La Befana was too busy cleaning her house at the time, so she declined the offer to go with them. Very soon she realized that she had made a huge mistake, so she gathered up a bag full of gifts and set off alone in search of the baby Jesus. Though she followed the same star as the Magi, she was unable to find the stable. Undaunted, la Befana continues to travel the world over to this day searching every house for the Christ child. On January 6, the first day of Epiphany, Italian children hold their breaths as they search their stockings for a sign that they have been good that year.

The bottom line: Christmas is not over yet. It is celebrated until at least the Epiphany (i.e., the conclusion of the 12 Days of Christmas), though in many parts of Italy decorations are still left up until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation. I rather like the idea of giving and getting gifts at both the beginning and the end of the Christmas celebration!

Buon Anno Nuovo – Happy New Year!

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