There are Baroque concerts in the churches, ranks of poinsettias on the altars, illuminated madonnas and presepi (cribs) everywhere across the city. Add to this the fantastic food, beautiful architecture and stylish atmosphere and you’re sure to have a Christmas to remember.
In fact, spending the festive season in Rome is not a modern idea. Back in the 18th century, travellers often chose to celebrate Christmas there. Their stay usually lasted for several weeks and, while the initial stages coincided with religious ceremonies, the final weeks were devoted to full on festivities, followed by the then celebrated Roman Carnival. Nowadays, the streets come alive during the week of Christmas, with pilgrims celebrating the holiday and tourists taking advantage of a great secret: Rome is absolutely magical for the holidays.
While museums and galleries are usually closed from December 24 to 27, a wide variety of festivals, church focused events and street entertainment make this one of the best times of the year for a visit. Perhaps the most family friendly event is the annual Fair of La Befana. Traditionally, the witch-like La Befana is said to visit the homes of Italian children, leaving sweets and presents for the good and coals for the naughty.
Each year, Piazza Navona fills up with street stalls, tarot card readers, fair rides and local craftsmen selling Christmas gifts. Children can visit Santa Claus and parents can wander around in the happy and expectant holiday atmosphere of the market. In addition to toys, you’ll find strenne (Christmas branches) traditionally exchanged among Romans and Christmas treats like torrone (nutty nougat).
Another festive tradition is the shepherd pipers who visit the city during the holidays, playing their sheepskin bagpipes. These are a Roman version of the shepherds who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Still wearing the traditional costume of a sheepskin vest, baggy knee-length trousers and leather-bound leggings, they descend from the mountains of the Abruzzo and Latium playing inviting and characteristic tunes on their bagpipes, filling the air with anticipation for the joyous celebration to come.
Not surprisingly, churches play a large part in Rome’s Christmas attractions and almost all display their own presepio, or nativity scene. Among the most popular is the city’s official presepio located at the Spanish Steps, the setting and costumes of which recall the Trastevere district and its inhabitants, as represented by the Roman artist Bartolomeo Pinelli in the 19th century. This is the presepio the Pope visits each year to place a veil over the figure of Mary, before moving on to perform mass at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Attending High Mass at midnight on Christmas Eve is still a well held tradition in Rome, and most churches throughout the city will have their doors open until late. The Pope gives his Midnight Mass in St Peter’s Square, the very heart of Roman Catholicism, in what is arguably the world’s most famous church. Tickets for this popular event are free, but reservations are required.
Apart from the religious ceremony, Italian Christmas celebrations involve plenty of food and traditional holiday fare. Italian pasticcerias are brimming with various assortments of panettone and pand’oro cakes. Christmas Eve (called La Vigilia) is celebrated with a feast that can involve between 10 and 20 meat-free dishes of fish and assorted seafood, including the Roman specialty, capitone – a female eel, served either grilled, fried or roasted.
Christmas Day itself sees the Pope giving his Urbi er Orbi message and blessing in Saint Peter’s Square at midday. A traditional Roman Christmas lunch involves red meat, often in the form of tortellini, as a tribute to the body of Christ, and there are plenty of rich desserts to finish with. According to peasant folklore, eating nuts at this important meal ensures the fertility of the earth and aids in the increase of flocks and family, while honey is offered at this time of year so that the New Year might be sweet. This is yet another reason to send Christmas in Rome.
PDM verdict: Whether you’re planning a romantic festive trip or a fun filled family get-together, Rome during the Christmas season is a whimsical and enchanting destination. Buon Natale!