The Befana festival of Piazza Navona

Italian Traditions has already touched upon the tradition of the Befana, the friendly witch who brings presents and sweets to Italian children on January 6th. Traditionally the day of the Catholic Epiphany however is also a family holiday on which adults enjoy the day out with the kids, and it is celebrated in various ways in the different regions and towns of Italy.

In the case of Rome, for example, the Befana has always been the day for visiting the fleeting Christmas market of Piazza Navona. For just a couple of days the majestic square fills up with wooden stalls selling all sorts of typical delicacies and toys, amidst the festive songs of merry-go-rounds and other colorful attractions. Or so it was until 2015. This year the Piazza Navona market was upturned by a veritable revolution – but some context is needed to understand what really happened. Fact is, the market had grown denser and denser for two decades, until the square was packed with over 120 official concessions and countless street peddlers. That would have not been a problem if the quality had remained the same that enchanted visitors from all the world over for centuries. Unfortunately however that was not the case. The concession stalls had slowly been bought and coopted by two families who ended up controlling over 90% of the market. As it often happens with Italy, this could only happen due to the proven influence of corrupted politicians and of organized crime. The effect was a steady drop in merchandise quality: gone were the traditional, artisanal treats and the handcrafted toys. In their place, overpriced supermarket-fare candy bars and knockoff Chinese toys that escaped safety certifications tested the patience of the public. The oft-mentioned symbol of Piazza Navona’s market decadence were the porchetta vendors: tasty but smelly sellers of roasted pig sandwiches that have nothing to do with Roman tradition.

 

What happened with the 2015 edition was a mayoral decree to cut the number of stalls by half and to return to traditional merchandise. The vendors formed an unauthorized cartel and protested by not accepting their concession permits, and organizing an invasion of obnoxiously aggressive  street peddlers during market days to disrupt the event. The municipality’s answer was to quickly counter-organize a series of free street shows for kids and families with the collaboration of many charities. The result was pretty nice, with historical attractions, puppet shows, ancient games like tug-of-war and sack races, gospel concerts, horseback riding Mages and more. A very fine time all considered… but just not what people expected from the Piazza Navona Befana market. Insiders say that the conflict should now be resolved and that the 2016 edition will be back to its long-lost glory. Either case, a “new” tradition is in store for Rome.