Rome is a top Italian city to visit during the Christmas holiday season. It's also the place where the Christmas celebration 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.
Here are the top Rome Christmas sights during the Christmas holiday season, from early December through Epiphany on January 6.
Saint Peter's Square
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 says 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.
Piazza Navona Christmas Market
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.
Christmas trees are not an Italian tradition but have become more popular. 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.
Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas Crib
The Nativity in Santa Maria Maggiore is said to be 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.
Nativity Scene at the Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano
The Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano, above the forum, displays one of the largest nativity scenes. Commissioned by Charles III of Naples, it includes not just religious figures but also intricate figurines of people from everyday life. Six master woodcarvers worked on the scene for 40 years, adding new figures each year. Figurines representing royalty are dressed in fine fabrics. This presepe started the Naples style nativity, which still includes figures from everyday life. The city of Rome bought it and restored it in the 1930's.
Santo Bambino in the Church of Santa Maria Aracoeli
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 was carved, it miraculously painted itself. Returning to Rome, the ship sank but the statue washed up on shore. It was blessed by the Pope and kept in the Church of Santa Maria Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. In the early 1990's, the original was stolen so a new piece of olive wood was requested to carve a reproduction, 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 presepe 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. A good place to go is the shopping streets near Piazza di Spagna. An outdoor ice skating rink, open daily from 10 p.m. to midnight (with earlier closing on the actual holidays) is set up near Castel Sant'Angelo where there's also a small Christmas market.
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 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.