Italy’s Christmas season generally runs from the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 through Epiphany on January 6. Rome is Italy’s top Christmas destination because of its proximity to the Vatican, the seat of Catholicism. Rome is also said to be the first place where a Christmas mass was celebrated and it holds what’s believed to be the oldest permanent nativity display.
Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
A good place to start your itinerary is in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore because it has several links to Christmas. One of Rome’s four papal basilicas, this church is where the first Christmas mass was said. The bells at Santa Maria Maggiore are rung at midnight on Christmas Eve. A reliquary in the Crypt of the Nativity holds what is believed to be pieces of the original nativity crib and the procession of the Holy Crib is held on Christmas.
In the church’s museum, you can see what’s believed to be the oldest presepe or Christmas crib representation. Commissioned for the Jubilee held in 1300, the nativity includes 8 large marble figures carved by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1288. Note: the first living nativity is attributed to Saint Francis in 1223 near Assisi, prior to this carved nativity display.
Nativity Displays or Presepi
Presepi, Christmas cribs, have changed a lot since the one found in Santa Maria Maggiore. They are found in nearly every church and many homes. Usually put on display for the holidays starting December 8, the baby Jesus is added on Christmas.
In Naples presepi developed to include figures and scenes from everyday life along with religious figures and the Christmas crib. These displays can be very elaborate and may include many figures. Often people add new ones each year. A great example of a Neapolitan-style presepe is on permanent display in the Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano, above the Roman Forum. It’s open Friday through Sunday except in August, but usually closes for a couple of hours during lunchtime. Commissioned by Charles III of Naples, six master woodcarvers worked on the scene for forty years. It was one of the first presepe to be done in this style and was bought and restored by the city of Rome.
A changing exhibit, called 100 Presepi, is held from December 9 through January 7 in Saint Peter’s Square. Christmas cribs on display come from many parts of Italy and other countries.
Saint Peter’s Square and Basilica
Also in Saint Peter’s Square, a huge Christmas tree is put up as well as a life-size nativity. On December 9, the tree is lighted and the nativity unveiled. They’re both on display through January 7. The Vatican Museums are often very crowded during the time around Christmas so it’s best to book advance tickets or a tour – see Vatican Museums Visiting Information, tickets and tours.
Special masses are held in Saint Peter’s Basilica, including the very popular Christmas Eve midnight mass (usually starting at 10PM with a procession before) presided over by the Pope. Visitors who can’t get into the church crowd into Saint Peter’s Square where the mass is shown on big screen televisions. On Christmas Day the Pope usually delivers a message at noon from his apartment above the square. There’s also an event for Saint Stephen’s Day, December 26, in the square at noon. See Papal schedule.
Church of Santa Maria Aracoeli
Santo Bambino, a statue carved from olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane, resides inside the Church of Santa Maria Araceoli, on the Capitoline Hill. Many Roman children write Christmas letters to Santo Bambino. On Christmas Eve, the statue is added to the church’s Christmas crib. On Epiphany, Santo Bambino is carried down the big flight of church stairs in a dramatic procession attended by thousands of people. Then he is returned to his place in the church.
Christmas Market, Lights and Trees
In the past, presepi were the main decorations for Christmas. However, lights and Christmas trees are now common. Stroll around Rome in the evening, looking at the lights and trees. Besides the huge tree in Saint Peter’s Square, Rome’s official Christmas tree is in Piazza del Popolo in 2023 (instead of Piazza Venezia). There’s usually a large tree near the Colosseum, too.
A Christmas market is held in Piazza Navona that includes food booths, a nativity, and a carousel. You may see Babbo Natale or La Befana in the square too. An outdoor ice skating rink is often set up near Castel Sant’Angelo along with a small market.
New Year’s Eve in Rome
Special events are held throughout the city with fireworks ringing in the new year. Top places to celebrate New Year’s Eve include the Circus Maximus and Piazza del Popolo, where big parties with live music and dancing are usually held. If you prefer classical music, head to the piazza by the Quirinale for the 11 PM concert. The Pope leads Vespers in Saint Peter’s Basilica, usually at 5 PM. Be sure to check public transportation schedules if you plan to be out late.
Epiphany Procession and La Befana
If you’re in Rome on January 6, don’t miss the huge procession with hundreds of costumed participants held in Vatican City. It’s followed by a special mass led by the pope. Epiphany is also the day that children traditionally get gifts (although Babbo Natale is replacing that custom). Children hang up stockings on January 5 and gifts are delivered in the night by La Befana.
Day Trip to Naples
If you have one more day, take a day trip to Naples, a little over an hour on the fast train. Via San Gregorio Armeno, in the historic center, is known as the street of the nativity scene. Workshops in this area create figurines for presepi, some of them beautifully crafted and hand decorated. Small stores sell a variety of figures, ranging from inexpensive mass-produced items to those created by artisans. Although the stores are open all year, the Christmas season is a fun time to visit Naples, although the street can be very crowded.
Plan Your Visit to Rome
- JK Place, near the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon, is a top boutique hotel.
- Hotel Residenza di Ripetta is in a former monastery with inner courtyard, between Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps.
- Trianon Borgo Pio Aparthotel, between the Vatican Museums and Castel Sant’Angelo, is well-located for visiting the Vatican sights.
- See and compare more top Rome hotels.
Some restaurants are closed December 24, 25, and 26 and many fill up quickly, so it’s best to make reservations in advance. See Where to Eat on Christmas Eve and Day.Rome Books:
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