It’s all about babies now in Rome. Babies, babies, babies. You’ll see them everywhere.
And it’s really one baby in particular: Il Santo Bambino: The holy child.
- n First, there was last Sunday — Gaudete Sunday — the third Sunday of Advent. On this Sunday every year, the pope blesses bambinelli — statues of baby Jesus for household Nativity sets. Schoolchildren from around Rome gather in Vatican Square for the ceremony.
“These statues will be placed in the cribs of Nativity scenes in homes and schools,” wrote longtime resident Joan Lewis, Rome bureau chief for EWTN, in her blog. “Often you will see a child holding up two or even three statues for the papal blessing as they bring Baby Jesus for a friend who could not come that day.”
- The Vatican Nativity scene will not be unveiled until Christmas Eve, but preparations for it are already underway in Vatican Square. The Vatican tree, a 82-foot Bavarian fir, was set up in the square on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day. This year’s Nativity scene — a tradition in the square since 1982 and started by Pope John Paul II — will be a gift from Naples. The theme for the scene will be “Francis 1223 — Francis 2013,” marking the 790th anniversary of the first live Nativity scene that St. Francis of Assisi held in the Italian town of Grecchio. Since Naples, in the 18th century, changed the tradition of the Nativity scenes from rustic tableau a la St. Francis into intricate scenes of fine sculpture with grand architecture, this year’s Vatican Nativity may prove to be a grand show.
- If Pope Francis follows papal tradition, his first Mass of Christmas Day will take place in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, in a grotto under the main altar that represents the cave of Bethlehem. The grotto contains a fifth-century crypt holding five boards of sycamore wood of Middle Eastern origin. These are traditionally said to be the boards of the manger of Jesus in Bethlehem. The boards give St. Mary Major its second name — Santa Maria Ad Praesepe, or St. Mary of the Crib. The Nativity Chapel has been the usual site of the pope’s first Christmas Day Mass since the seventh century.
- For the rest of Rome, another church will be the site of pilgrimage from Christmas Eve to Epiphany.
The church of Santa Maria de Ara Coeli (of the altar of heaven) contains a 16th-century presepio and a famous wooden statue of Baby Jesus known as Il Santo Bambino (the Holy Child). In 1994, the 15th-century original of this olive wood statue, carved from wood from the Garden of Gethsemane, was stolen and never recovered. So a replica stands in today, spending most of the year in the chapel of the Holy Child.
However, on Christmas Eve, the statue is veiled and brought from its chapel to be uncovered and revealed before the altar while the Gloria is sung. Until Epiphany, the statue then sits to the left of the nave in the midst of a life-size Nativity scene. The Holy Child sits in his mother’s lap and receives kisses from churchgoers. Also, the scene is strewn with unopened letters addressed to the Holy Child. Most of them come from children, who are also welcome to come and recite poems or sing songs in front of the Nativity scene.
Santa Maria de Ara Coeli stands on the Capitoline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome. It is reached by 124 steps, built in 1348. On Christmas Eve, pilgrims climb these candlelit stairs to the music of bagpipes. On Epiphany, the statue of Baby Jesus is taken to the top of these steps to bless the city and then returned to his year-round chapel.
However, the Holy Child won’t stay there all the time. The statue is traditionally taken to anyone who asks for healing, carried in a gilded carriage. Many miracles are attributed to Santo Bambino — and this is why the letters come to him all year.
Even when the Christmas season ends in Rome — with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord — children are not forgotten. Remember that Vatican tree? Following tradition, wood from the tree will be used to make toys later this year — for children, and the babies.
Sources: radiovatican.va; Joan’s Rome at ewtn.org; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions”; “The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia”;” “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; fisheaters.org; traditionsinaction.org; and inItaly.com.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in March 2014.