The sacristan, if asked, will unlock the Shrine of the Santo Bambino, an image of the Holy Child, carved by a Franciscan at Jerusalem in the seventeenth century out of wood taken from the Garden of Olives.
The ship that brought it from Palestine was wrecked at Livorno, but the image was miraculously preserved and brought to Ara Coeli about 1647. It is greatly venerated in Rome, and frequently carried to the sick for their consolation; even miraculous cures are said to have been wrought by it.
The figure is robed in silk and diamonds, and formerly had a carriage of its own, given by Prince Torlonia to convey it to the sick. The blessing given with the Santo Bambino from the head of the marble steps at Christmas time is a great event.
On Christmas day also, after vespers of the Feast of the Epiphany, the miraculous image is carried in solemn procession. An immense crowd gathers on the long flight of steps leading up to the church door and spreads out in the piazza below.
The priest bearing the statue halts at the open space outside the church, which commands a distant view of St. Peter s, and blesses the city with the sacred image; heads are bared and knees bent in reverence to receive the benediction.
A famous crib is made every Christmas at this church; and throughout the octave of the feast children of tender years recite poems of little sermons on a platform in front of it. The infant preachers, whose ages range from four to ten years, go through their task one after another without the slightest embarrassment, emphasizing their words with graceful gestures.
They tell us how they had heard the angels in the early morning, had accompanied the shepherds to the crib, and looked upon the Divine Infant; how they had told the Bambino not to cry, that they would console Him by being good.
There is a tradition that as the great procession of penance directed by St. Gregory the Great (then Pope-elect) in 590 passed through the Forum with the Picture of Our Lady from St. Mary Major, angels were heard singing over the church of Ara Coeli.
The Apparitions and Shrines of Heaven’s Bright Queen in Legend, Poetry and History, Volume 3
William J. Walsh