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 at the Church of 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 the Christmas markets, visit a traditional Nativity, and even go ice skating.
Each year a huge Christmas tree is erected in Saint Peter's Square. A life-size 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 it's shown on big-screen TVs) and delivers his Christmas message at noon on Christmas Day from the window of his apartment above the square. On December 13, a colorful parade to Saint Peter's Square for Santa Lucia Day is held.
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 erected in the square later in December, too.
See the Christmas Trees
Christmas trees are not an Italian tradition but have become more popular in recent years. In addition to the tree in Saint Peter's Square, two of the largest Christmas trees in Rome are usually erected in Piazza Venezia and next to the Colosseum. There's also a tree in the area in front of the Museums on the Capitoline Hill. Some shops, hotels, and restaurants display small trees. Tree decorations are usually fairly simple, often just lights.
The Nativity in Santa Maria Maggiore is said to have the oldest presepe or permanent 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, it's now on display 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 the same dimensions as the cave where Jesus was born. The first Christmas Mass was said in Santa Maria Maggiore. The bells are rung at midnight to signify the start of Christmas.
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 Nativity 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 was carved from a piece of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane. According to legend, after the statue of the Child Jesus was carved, it miraculously painted itself. On it's way to Rome, the ship carrying the statue sank but the statue washed up onshore. It was blessed by the Pope and kept in the Church of Santa Maria Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill.
In the early 1990s, the original was stolen so a new piece of olive wood was commissioned for carving a reproduction, again blessed by the Pope.
Roman children write their Christmas letters to Santo Bambino (Child Jesus). 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.
Lights, Ice Skating, and Roasting Chestnuts
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, open daily from 10 p.m. to midnight (with earlier closings on the actual holidays) is set up near Castel Sant'Angelo where there's also a small Christmas market.
Rome has a large Jewish population and Hanukkah is another important holiday celebrated in December. A large menorah is erected in Piazza Barberini and one candle is lit each night during the Hanukkah season.
Nativity displays, or presepi, are the traditional Italian Christmas decoration. 100 Presepi, with nativity scenes from all over Italy and other parts of the world, is an annual traditional display held in Sala del Bramante in Piazza del Popolo from late November through January 6, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Piazza del Popolo is also a top spot for celebrating New Year's Eve in Rome.
Visit the Eataly store and market in the Testaccio area of Rome. This large indoor market offers traditional Italian foods and produce, gourmet treats, holiday foods, and even cooking classes.
You can grab an authentic meal, relax over a cup of coffee, or pick up a Christmas gift at Eataly (the words Eat and Italy combined).
It would be a good place to find a traditional Italian Christmas dessert—panettone or pandoro. Panettone is made with raisins and candied orange peel while pandoro is plain and served with powdered sugar. Both can be found with creative fillings as well and are usually purchased to take home, not made in the home kitchen.
The market is closed on Christmas day.
Most visitors to Rome don't know that there is a beautiful and unusual Christmas Eve Mass celebrated at The Pantheon. The Pantheon was built in Roman times as a temple where one could worship any deity and so was originally a pagan building. In 609 AD, the building 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.
Sempre Natale, which translates to Always Christmas, is a Christmas shop on Via della Scrofa in Rome that is open all year. They are known for their European blown-glass ornaments which are hand made in Italy, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. To get a sense of the range of unique, sometimes humorous, and beautiful ornaments, have a look at their Instagram feed.
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.” The Pope, addressing the crowd in St. Peter's Square and the world through the media 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 those listening around the world.