Christmas in Rome

Christmas is a good time to visit Rome: the city is not packed with tourists, and it’s not terribly hot as during summer-time. The only thing you may need is an umbrella, even though December is not the wettest month. During the 2 weeks preceding Christmas Day, the streets become alive with lights and lovely decorations and you will find also many Christmas markets.

The most popular is the market that takes place in the famous 17th century Piazza Navona. The market runs every day from mid December through January 6th (Epiphany). In the stalls you’ll find everything, from souvenirs, to decorations for your Christmas tree and, of course, toys and sweets! The market ends with a parade dedicated to “ La Befana”, a witch who brings either sweets or sugar charcoal to children. According to tradition, this old lay travels in the sky straddling a broomstick and visits the houses of all children the night between January 5th and 6th and she leaves her gifts for the kids in a socket. Christian legend has it that the woman was famous in her village for being the best housekeeper and that she had given shelter to the Three Kings in search for the Child Jesus. They were following the comet and asked her directions on where the divine child was but she didn’t know. Before leaving, they invited the old woman to accompany them and she said she was too busy with her housework but eventually she repented and changed her mind so she set out to search for this special Baby and filled a bag with presents for him. Apparently, the Befana is still searching and since she doesn’t know how He may look, she leaves sweets in the houses of all good children while only charcoal (sugar) is destined to those who have not behaved well during the year. And this is why Italian children are so lucky to get presents twice: by Santa and by the Befana!

There are also various events taking place during the Christmas season around the city such as gospel concerts, street performances, children shows.

There will be also a number of Christmas trees in the main squares, such as Piazza Venezia and Piazza San Pietro and, in order to honor an ancient tradition, most of the churches will prepare a nativity scene (presepe) and many Italians put up both a Christmas tree and a presepe in their homes. It all started centuries ago, in 1223, when Saint Francis, the friar from Umbria wanted to bring to life the story of the birth of Jesus. In the little town of Greccio, he placed a manger in some straw and added a living Madonna, St. Joseph, some shepherds and actual cattle and sheep: it was the first presepe and the first living representation of the event.

Presepi are normally set up starting December 8th, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, through January 6th, but some are unveiled on Christmas Eve. Very impressive are the nativities placed in the Chapel of the Baptistery in Saint Peter’s Basilica and in St. Peter’s Square, but the most famous is the presepe in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill, especially due to the statue of Baby Jesus. The original wooden statue of the Child Jesus (Santo Bambino) was carved in the 15th century out of olive wood coming from the Gethsemane garden and was attributed healing properties but it was stolen in 1994. A copy replaces the miraculous statue and it is put on display at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve when it is brought to the high altar of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Children from all over the world send letters to the Santo Bambino hoping their wishes will become true.

Besides discovering the many nativities inside the many churches of Rome, you can find some time for skating; there are 2 ice-skating rinks: one by Castel Sant’Angelo and another at the Auditorium – Parco della Musica.

The main religious event will be the midnight mass on Christmas Eve held at St. Peter’s Basilica by the Pope and broadcasted to crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square. If you wish to attend you should email the Vatican at to request tickets, which are free but must be booked (they must be collected in Rome though prior to the event)

Remember that major attractions like the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum will be closed on December 25th and on New Year’s Eve. The Vatican Museums will be closed December 8th, 25th and 26th, with early closing on December 31st and many shops and restaurants stay closed on Christmas Day.