For generations of Romans, Epiphany, not Christmas, was the holiday season’s main day for receiving gifts. They are dispensed overnight, according to Italian folklore, by the Befana, a broom-riding old hag with a strict naughty-or-nice ethic. To fall on her wrong side was to wake up on Jan. 6 to a stocking full of coal.
The Befana’s traditional headquarters — a kiosk-filled market in the central Piazza Navona here where vendors hawk trinkets, toys and sticky sweets — was a beloved annual pilgrimage, a kid-magnet of excitement, fun and sugar highs.
This year, Roman families turned out as usual, many with strollers in tow, on a sunny and warm Saturday. But it was evident that times had changed, and a cloud hung over the market.