Christmas season in Italy 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.
While most of these places can be visited any time of year, it’s especially nice to visit them during the Christmas season. However, be aware that from December 24 through January 1 is high season in Rome. National holidays are December 8, 25 and 26 and January 1 and 6.
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. 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, prior to this nativity display.
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, the baby Jesus is added on Christmas.
In Naples presepi developed to include figures and scenes from every day 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.
You’ll see a great example of a Neapolitan style presepe 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 lunch time. 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. It was bought and restored by the city of Rome and is on permanent display.
Your next stop should be the Church of Santa Maria Araceoli on the Capitoline Hill. Santo Bambino, a statue carved from olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane, resides in this church. 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.
Start your second day with a visit to the Vatican City, a good place to go during Christmas season although it can be crowded. Before Christmas, a huge tree is put up in Saint Peter’s Square and decorated. A life-size nativity is created to be unveiled on Christmas Eve. The Vatican Museums are often crowded during the time around Christmas so it’s best to book advance tickets or a tour – see Vatican Museums visiting information, tickets and discount tours or book any small group Vatican Museums tour with the Roman Guy through this link to get a 5% discount.
Special masses are held in the Basilica, including the very popular Christmas Eve midnight mass (usually starting earlier than midnight) 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.
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, there’s usually a tree by the Colosseum and in Piazza Venezia.
There used to be a Christmas market in Piazza Navona but the past few years, it’s been just a few booths, a nativity, and a carousal. It’s still a good stop on your evening stroll though. 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.
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 in 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 11PM concert. The Pope leads Vespers in Saint Peter’s Basilica, usually at 5PM.
See New Year’s Eve in Rome for events and places to go.
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.
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, Christmas season is a fun time to visit Naples, although the street can be very crowded.
Tip: January is a great time for shopping. Many stores, especially in cities, have big sales starting after the January 6 holiday.
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