Rome is a popular Italian city to visit during the Christmas holiday season. It's also the place where some major religious Christmas traditions originated. The first Christmas Mass was said to take place at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and the earliest known permanent nativity was created for the Rome Jubilee in 1300.
There is much to do and see in Rome during the Christmas holiday season, from early December through Epiphany on January 6. You can shop at the Christmas markets, visit a traditional nativity, and even go ice skating.
Please note some of these events have been canceled or altered in 2020; confirm details below and on event websites.
Each year, a huge Christmas tree is erected in Saint Peter's Square. A life-sized nativity is also set up but usually not unveiled until Christmas Eve. Thousands of visitors flock to Saint Peter's Square when the pope celebrates midnight mass on Christmas Eve inside Saint Peter's Basilica (in the square, the mass is shown on large screens). He delivers his Christmas blessing at noon on Christmas Day. On December 13, a colorful parade to Saint Peter's Square for Santa Lucia Day is held. For 2020, the midnight mass was moved to 7:30 p.m.
Cherish the Christmas Trees
Christmas trees are not an Italian tradition but have become more popular in Rome, though decorations on the trees are usually fairly simple—often just lights. In addition to the one in Saint Peter's Square, two of the city's largest Christmas trees are typically the ones set up in Piazza Venezia and next to the Colosseum. There's also a tree in the area in front of the Museums on Capitoline Hill. Some shops, hotels, and restaurants display small trees.
View the Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas Nativity
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is said to have the oldest permanent presepe, or nativity scene. It was carved in marble by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century, a commission for the first Rome Jubilee held in 1300. Although originally displayed in the church, the nativity is now in the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore. Below the altar is a reliquary said to contain pieces of the original manger. It's kept in a niche in the same dimensions as the cave where Jesus was born. The first Christmas Mass was said to be held in Santa Maria Maggiore. When bells are rung at midnight, it signifies the start of Christmas.
Stroll by the Nativity at the Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano
The Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano, above the Roman Forum, displays one of the largest nativity scenes. Commissioned by Charles III of Naples, it includes not just religious figures but also intricate figures of people from everyday life. Six master woodcarvers worked on the scene for 40 years, adding new figures each year. Figures representing royalty are dressed in fine fabrics. This project started the Naples-style nativity, which still includes figures from everyday life. The city of Rome bought the nativity and restored it in the 1930s.
In the 16th century, a statue of the Santo Bambino (child Jesus) was carved from a piece of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane. According to legend, an angel finished painting it after the friar who had started to do so ran out of paint. On its way to Rome, the ship carrying the statue sank but the art washed ashore in Livorno, Italy. The pope blessed the statue and kept it in the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill.
After the statue was reportedly stolen from the church in 1994, a copy was made to replace it, again blessed by the pope.
Roman children write their Christmas letters to Santo Bambino. On Christmas Eve, the statue is put in the church's Nativity, and on January 6, he's paraded down the church stairs—thousands of people come for the procession.
Head to the Menorah in Piazza Barberini
Rome has a large Jewish population and Hanukkah is another important holiday celebrated in December. A large menorah is erected in Piazza Barberini in the city center. One candle is lit each night during the Hanukkah season. There is also usually a big Hanukkah Street Party in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, where visitors can enjoy dancing, food, and marches.
Check Out 100 Presepi
Nativity displays are a classic Italian form of Christmas decorations, and 100 Presepi, with nativity scenes from all over Italy and other parts of the world, is an annual traditional display. In 2020, the free event was limited to fewer visiting hours between December 13 and January 17, 2021, in the Colonnade of Saint Peter's Square.
Explore the Christmas Shop
Sempre Natale, which translates to always Christmas, is a shop all about the December holiday, located on Via della Scrofa in Rome and open all year. The store is known for European blown-glass ornaments, which are handmade in Italy, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Before heading to the shop, you may want to get a sense of the unique, sometimes humorous, and beautiful ornaments.
Partake in Lights, Ice Skating, and Roasting Chestnuts
The Auditorium Parco della Musica, which houses the ice skating rink, was temporarily closed in December 2020. Information on whether the ice rink is open is unavailable. Christmas markets in Rome were canceled for 2020.
Rome's main streets are decorated with lights and often have entertainment by roving musicians and vendors selling roasted chestnuts. Good places to go during the holidays are the shopping streets near Piazza di Spagna.
An outdoor ice skating rink is set up near Castel Sant'Angelo, where there's also a small Christmas market.
Hear the Pope's Christmas Day Address
The pope's annual Christmas day address is called Urbi et Orbe, which is Latin for “to the city and to the world.” Addressing the crowd in St. Peter's Square and around the globe through the media, the pope usually speaks in several languages and may use the opportunity to urge peace or address a current issue of concern.
He then gives his blessing to all those in the Square and people listening around the world.
The Piazza Navona Christmas market was canceled for 2020.
In December, Piazza Navona—Rome's famous Baroque square—is transformed into a huge Christmas market. You'll find stands selling all kinds of Christmas sweets, toys, nativity figures, decorations, and gifts. There's a merry-go-round and Babbo Natale, Father Christmas, makes an appearance to delight the kids. A large nativity scene is on display in December as well.
The Pantheon was temporarily closed to the public in December 2020.
Most visitors to Rome don't know that there is a beautiful and unusual Christmas Eve Mass celebrated at the Pantheon. The originally pagan building was designed in early Roman times to be a temple where one could worship any deity. In 609 A.D., it was consecrated as a Christian church and is used for Catholic services. On Christmas Eve, the candlelight Christmas celebration with Gregorian chants is beautiful and mystical.