A Roman Christmas by Unknown

CHRISTMAS is as great a day for young Romans as it is for young Americans, and on it they, like other boys and girls, eat too much candy and get more new toys than they know what to do with. But they have one way of keeping it which other children do not have; and as I was in Rome one Christmas, I will tell you what I saw them do.

In the morning, about half-past ten, I went to a church on the Capitol Hill, called Church of the Altar of Heaven. This hill is high and there are one hundred and twenty-four steps leading to the door of the church. It was a dull gray day, and the rain was pouring down so hard that there were little pools and streams all over the old stone steps. But many people were going up. There were men from the country in blue coats and short trousers, and women with bodices and square white head-dresses, who carried the largest umbrellas you have ever seen, blue or green, or purple with bright borders around them. And there were children, more than you could count, some with the country people, others with their nurses, and many who were very ragged, all by themselves. At the top of the steps men were selling pious pictures and did not seem to mind the rain in the least. Over the doors were red hangings in honor of Christmas.

Inside were more people. At the far end service was going on and the monks, to whom the church belongs, were chanting, and there was a great crowd around the altar. But near the door by which I came in, and in a side aisle was a still larger crowd, and it was here that all the little ones had gathered together. They were waiting in front of a chapel, the doors of which were closed tight. For they knew that behind them was the Manger which every year the monks put up in their church. Right by the chapel was a big statue of a Pope, larger than life, and some eager boys had climbed up on it and were standing at its knee. And some who had arrived very late were perched on another statue like it on the other side, and even in the baptismal font and on tombstones at the foot of the church. Women and men were holding up their babies, all done up in queer tight bandages, that they too might see. And all were excited and looking impatiently down the long aisle. Presently, as I waited with the children, there came from the side door a procession. First came men in gray robes, holding lighted tapers, then monks in brown with ropes around their waists, and last three priests who carried a statue of the Infant which is almost as old as the church itself. When they reached the chapel the doors were thrown open, and they took this statue in and placed it at the foot of those of the Virgin and St. Joseph.

I wish you could have been there to look in as I did. It was all so bright and sunny and green. It seemed like a bit of summer come back. In front was the Holy Family with great baskets of real oranges and many bright green things at their feet. And above them, in the clouds, were troops of angels playing on harps and mandolins, and in the distance you could see the shepherds and their sheep, and then palm trees, and a town with many houses. It was so pretty that a little whisper of wonder went through all the crowd, while many of the boys and girls near me shouted aloud for joy.

So soon as the procession was over, every eye was turned from the chapel to a small platform on the other side of the church. It had been raised right by an old column which, long before this church was built, must have stood in some temple of Pagan Rome. Out on the platform stepped a little bit of a girl, as fresh and as young as the column was old and gray. She was all in white, and she made a pretty courtesy to the people, and then when she saw so many faces turned towards her, she tried to run away. But her mother, who was standing below, would not let her, but whispered a few words in her ear, and the little thing came back and began to give us all a fine sermon about the Christ-child. Such funny little gestures as she made! Just like a puppet, and, every now and then, she looked away from us and down into her mother's face, as if the sermon were all for her. But her voice was very sweet, and by and by she went down on her knees and raised her hands to Heaven and said a prayer as solemnly as if she really had been a young preacher. But after that, with another courtesy, she jumped down from her pulpit platform as fast as ever she could.

And this is the way Roman children celebrate Christmas. On Christmas Day, and for a week afterwards, for one hour every afternoon, they preach their sermons, and all the people in the city and the country around, the young and the old, the grave and the gay, come to hear them.

I made a second visit to the church two or three days later. The rain had stopped and the sky was bright and blue, and the sun was shining right on the steps, for it was about three in the afternoon. And such a sight you have never seen! From top to bottom people were going and coming, many in the gayest of gay colors. And on each side were pedlers selling toys. "Everything here for a cent!" they were calling. And others were selling books, through which an old priest was looking, and oranges with the fresh green leaves still on their stems, and beans, which the Romans love better than almost anything else, and pious pictures and candy. Ragged urchins, who had spent their pennies, had cleared a space in one corner and were sending off toy trains of cars. Climbing up in front of me, two by two, were about twenty little boys, all studying to be priests and dressed in the long black gowns and broad-brimmed hats which priests in Italy wear. To one side was a fine lady in slippers with such high heels that she had to rest every few minutes on her way up. On the other were three old monks with long gray beards and sandals on their bare feet. And at the church door there was such pushing in and out that it took me about five minutes to get inside.

Here I found a greater crowd even than on Christmas. There were ever so many peasants, the men's hair standing straight up on end, something like Slovenly Peter's only much shorter, and the women, clasping their bundles of babies in their arms. And close to them were finely dressed little girls and boys with their nurses. If you once saw a Roman nurse, you would never forget her, for she wears a very gay-colored dress, all open at the neck, around which are strings of coral. And on her head is a ruching of ribbon, tied at the back with a bow and long ends, and through her hair is a long silver pin, and in her ears, large ear-rings. And there were many priests and monks and even soldiers, and the boys had climbed up again on the statues, and one youngster had put a baby he was taking care of right in the Pope's lap.

The lights were burning in the Manger, but the people were standing around the platform, for the preaching had begun. Before I left I heard about ten little boys and girls make their speeches. One or two of the girls were quite grown up, that is to say they were perhaps ten or twelve years old. And they spoke very prettily and did not seem in the least bit afraid. Some wore fine clothes and had on hats and coats, and even carried muffs. But others had shabby dresses, and their heads were covered with scraps of black veils. First came a young miss, whose words tumbled out of her mouth, she was so ready with them, and who made very fine gestures, just as if she had been acting in a theatre. And next came a funny little round-faced child, who could hardly talk because she was cutting her teeth and had none left in the front of her mouth, and who clutched her dress with both hands, and never once clasped them or raised them to Heaven, or pointed them to the Manger, as I am sure she had been taught to do. But she was so frightened I was glad for her sake when her turn was over. Two little sisters, with hats as big as the halos around the saints' heads in the pictures, recited a short dialogue, and all through it they held each other's hands tight for comfort, even when they knelt side by side and said a prayer for all of us who were listening. And after that a little bit of a tot said her little piece, and she shrugged her shoulders until they reached her pretty little ears, and she smiled so sweetly all the time, that when she had finished every one was smiling with her, and some even laughed outright. But while they were still laughing a boy, such a wee thing, even smaller than the little smiler, dressed in a sailor suit and with close-cropped yellow head, toddled out. He stood still a moment and looked at us. Then he opened his mouth very wide, but not a word could he get out. His poor little face grew so red, and he looked as if he were about to cry. And the next moment he had rushed off and into his mother's arms. But indeed the big boy who took his place was almost as badly scared, and half the time he thrust his hands deep into his pockets, and you could see it was hard work for him to jerk them out to make a few gestures.

They were all pretty little sermons and prayers, and I think they must have done the people good. When I went out from the cool gray church on to the steps again, the sun shone right into my eyes and half blinded me, and perhaps it was that which made me sneeze twice. A small bareheaded girl ran out from the crowd when she heard me, and cried "Salute!" which is the Italian way of saying "God bless you." And I thought it a very fitting Amen to the sermons.