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Italian Christmas Traditions: Piazza Navona Christmas Market

piazza navona

Piazza Navona – the Christmas transformation
Every year at the end of November, the caricaturists and painting sellers who usually abound in Rome’s Piazza Navona disappear and the scene transforms into the world famous Christmas market that dominates the piazza for more than a month every year. The Piazza Navona Christmas Market has begun, and for 6 weeks Italian families come from all over Rome and its suburbs to take part in the market festivities. While the market is a hive of activity during the day things really ramp up at night.

A visit to the Piazza Navona Christmas Market is a time-honored tradition for many Italian families. Plan your visit to Rome at Christmas and you can join them in discovering the treasures on display in rows of booths along the piazza: Christmas ornaments, toys, decorations, and the traditional nativity scenes known as “presepi” in Italian.

Sweet treats at the Christmas Market
Toffee apples, candies, mouth watering porchetta sandwiches and the amazing ciambelle (giant doughnuts almost as big as a soccer ball!). These are just some of the fare that make Christmas at Piazza Navona so popular with grownups and children alike. Christmas is strongly felt in Italy, due to its Catholic roots so Christmas in Italy is a very special experience.

Piazza Navona itself is a fascinating precinct. It’s history extends back to the Emperor Domitian who ruled in the first century AD. Look closely at the piazza’s shape and you’ll notice it’s the same long oval as the Circo Massimo. At the end of the piazza near the Via Coronari you’ll find evidence of its illustrious history: the large tufa blocks that composed the stadium’s outer walls are still visible. The current state of the piazza owes more though to Pope Innocent X and his Baroque visions of grandeur. It was he who had the square cleared of its overgrown ruins and transformed it to the beautiful scene you see today.

The two most spectacular pieces in Piazza Navona are the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by the master sculptor Bernini and the Sant’Agnese in Agone church designed by Borromini. At each of the piazza’s far ends are two more fountains: the Moor on the Fontana del Moro at the south is also by Bernini. It might be difficult to see these monumental works of art among the lights and bustle of the Christmas market, but be sure you take a break from eating your delicious porchetta sandwich to explore them.

The legend of La Befana
Though you will see lots of figurines of Santa Claus, you’ll see many more presepi (or nativities) and ornaments depicting an old witchy woman flying on a broomstick. This old woman is La Befana, the character around whom the entire market revolves and the reason it always ends on January 6, the Epiphany, better known as La Befana in Italy.

On January 6 the market really fills up with kids who come to see La Befana in person. According to folklore, on the night before this she tumbles down the chimney to deliver gifts into the socks of kids who have been good and a lump of coal for those who’ve been bad. This explains all the stockings filled with candy hanging everywhere. Even if you don’t make it to the Piazza Navona Christmas Market for the Epiphany, evidence of La Befana persists throughout the month of December. You’ll see them hanging from the tops of booths and bobbling in small figurines.

Sometimes Babo Natale (Santa Claus) decides to take a stroll through the market too, providing a great opportunity for photo shoots with the children. Apart from all the candy and decorations there are several other permanent features of the Piazza Navona Christmas Market – most notably the large nativity set up inside a straw-lined hut and the merry-go-round that has spun its lights and horses every year since it was built in Germany in 1896.

Is the Piazza Navona Christmas Market open on Christmas Day?

While most businesses are closed on Christmas day, you will find the market stalls in Piazza Navona open on Christmas Day. Don’t come early though – the market opens late on Christmas day, so it’s the perfect time for relaxed afternoon stroll. You will find some restaurants and trattoria open on Christmas day too, so a hearty Italian meal followed by a visit to the Christmas Market is definitely on the cards. Night time is really the best time to take a walk around when the market is in operation. You can admire what’s for sale in all those stalls and perhaps have a try at the games on offer. Christmas is a wonderful and magical time of the year to be in Italy!

Piazza Navona, is one of Rome’s most stunning and storied piazza. When it transforms itself into a magical Christmas market, a whole new world opens up before our eyes.

The mood is festive, with clowns, mimes and jugglers often in attendance, but you probably didn’t expect to see Italian bagpipers, playing Christmas and folk songs in the square (Who knew?). As with almost everything in Italy, Piazza Navona and it’s Italian Christmas traditions are long established. The Piazza evolved as a public place starting in the late 1400s when it became the main marketplace in Rome.

As the Christmas Market in Piazza Navona culminates with the celebration of the Epiphany, you’re as likely to see marionettes and puppets in the likeness of “la befana” as you are Santa Claus. Mind you, Santa didn’t start as an Italian tradition, but he has definitely gone global, so there are always a few Santa toys to be found in the Piazza Navona, too!

If you know anyone who is lucky enough to be enjoying Christmas in Italy this year, remind them to check out the Christmas Market in the Piazza. Anyone visiting Piazza Navona at Christmas should bring their wallet and their appetite! And if you’re dreaming of one day spending Christmas in Italy, contact us today and get started on your plans for a special Christmas in Italy next year!

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By Priscila Siano (264 Posts)

Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She's a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients.

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