Christmas Eve in Rome (Christmas History 12)



In 1846 The Christmas Holydays in Rome was published, written by the Reverend William Ingraham Kip.  The title is slightly misleading as the book is in fact a journal of a winter spent in Rome, of which the Christmas celebrations for only a small part, but the description of Christmas in Rome over 150 years ago is quite fascinating.  Kip was the rector of a church in Albany, New York at the time, but was subsequently appointed the first Bishop of California.  I am quoting from Kip’s account of Christmas Eve, which is the most interesting.

The Christmas Holydays are at hand, and on every side we hear the note of preparation. The shops are decorated with flowers, while the altars of the churches are arrayed in their most splendid ornaments. The images of the Virgin in particular are seen in their gayest dress, and all the jewelry which the treasury can furnish is brought out to give them an elegant and fashionable appearance.

At this time, too, in addition to the varied population of the city — its priests, soldiers, and beggars, who together form the great proportion — a new accession is pouring in from the surrounding country. The peasants who live in the deserted tombs on the Campagna — the natives of the Alban mountains, fierce banditti-looking fellows, who gather their cloaks about them with a scowling air which would not be at all pleasant to encounter among their own hills — and the Trasteverini, in their picturesque costumes, boasting themselves to be the only true descendants of the ancient Romans, and as proud and haughty in their bearing as if they had also inherited the heroic virtues of their ancestors; — these are to be met roaming about every street, and in the churches, gazing in wonder at their magnificence.

The most singular, however, are the Calabrian minstrels, the pifferari. Their dress is wild and striking, consisting of a loose sheep-skin coat, with the wool left on it, and a high peaked cap, decked with gay ribbons and sprigs of heather, while the huge zampogne of goat-skin is formed like the bagpipes of Scotland, and resembles them too in its shrill music. These interesting characters arrive during the last days of Advent, and consider themselves the representatives of the shepherds of Judea, who were the first to announce the news of the Nativity. Their usual gathering place is on the steps of the Piazza di Spagna, where they lounge and sleep in the warm sun. Every little while a party sets out on a tour through the city, blowing away with the most desperate energy. At the next corner is one of the shrines of the Madonna, and this is their first stopping place, to salute the Mother and Child. Lady Morgan says, it is done “under the traditional notion of charming her labor-pains on the approaching Christmas.” They turn down the Via Frattina, and a short distance farther come to a carpenter’s shop, which must also be favored with a tune, “per politezza al messer San Giuseppe,” — “out of compliment to St. Joseph.” The owner hands them out a bajoccho, and they continue their march until the circuit is completed.

At sundown on Christmas eve, the cannon sounded from the castle of St. Angelo, to give notice that the Holy Season had begun. We were advised to attend service in the Sistine Chapel, and accordingly at an early hour repaired to the Vatican, in which it is situated…

After a while, the rumor began to spread round among the spectators, that the Pope was not to be present this evening, and therefore there would be no High Mass after Vespers. This news apparently made them more restless, and they began to thin out. One party after another passed down the line of guards as they stood like statues, and departed. Many went to the Church of St. Maria Maggiore, to see at midnight the true cradle in which our Lord was rocked carried in procession. Having however little taste for such exhibitions we did not join them. I found indeed, from the account of a friend who witnessed it, that we did not lose much. After standing for some hours in a dense crowd listening to the singing of the choir, a procession of priests carried the Holy Relic across the Church from the sacrisity to the altar. It was enclosed in a splendid coffer of silver with a canopy of gold cloth elevated over it. Banners waved — the lighted tapers were held up — incense rose in clouds about it — the guard of soldiers, and the crowd which filled the Church dropped on their knees — it passed — and the whole show was over.

Near midnight we took our course homeward, beneath as splendid a moon as ever shone, even through the transparency of an Italian sky. In the square before St. Peter’s, the obelisk raised its tapering point up to Heaven, and the fountain on each side flung high its waters, which fell in silver spray as they reflected back the clear light of the moon. We stood for a while on the Bridge of St. Angelo, looking at its beams play upon the Tiber. That mighty fortress — Hadrian’s massive tomb — was frowning darkly above us, and the statues which lined the bridge looked pale and wan in the clear night, till they appeared like pallid phantoms, steadfastly watching the current of time, by which they could be influenced no more.

From 1st to 24th December there will be a “Christmas History” article on Windows into History every day, exploring how people spent Christmas in the past through first-hand accounts in forgotten books.  Please come back tomorrow for the next article!

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