Rome for the Holidays? The Eternal City was designed for winter holiday celebration thanks to its beautiful architecture, the open and festively decorated piazzas, the not-too-chilly weather and most importantly, the century-old traditions and celebrations during the holiday season. If you are lucky enough to be traveling to Rome during the month of December, whether with little kids or big, you will easily find something to tingle your jingle bells as the city, its museums, churches and events are an interactive blend of festivities, family and tradition.
Lights: From December 8 through January 9, Rome becomes a living holiday card with Christmas markets, concerts and festivals, and of course, decorations. By December 8th, most shops and streets are accented with festive lights and Christmas trees. And if the 8 days of Hanukkah have not already passed, walk up to Piazza Barberini for a beautiful and large oil-lit menorah. Christmas tree lighting in Piazza Venezia, the Pincio Hill (above Piazza del Popolo), the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Square is eagerly awaited. And though as of today most have been lit, the Vatican has chosen to illuminate its tree, and St. Peter’s Square, on December 17. For a more 21st century take on holiday lights, the Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori neighborhoods are part of In Vicolo, a contemporary art project/walking itinerary of installations and projections in and around the neighborhoods.
Scene: If Naples is home to artists of Nativity scenes, Rome is the stage. Presepi (nativity scenes of three or more figures celebrating the birth of Christ) big and small appear in every church. Not to be under-staged, the Sala del Bramante at Piazza del Popolo showcases its annual 100 Presepi, one hundred hand-crafted nativity scenes- usually to be seen and not touched. However, this year the program is offering a lab for children to create figurines and play. For a mind-blowing presepe, head to St. Peter’s Square on Christmas eve, when the larger-than-life nativity comes alive in the center of the piazza. Don’t have time but need a camel and some magi? Find your favorite figurine at the Christmas Market at Piazza Navona.
Celebration: Christmas Eve Mass in Rome is not to be missed. Most people choose to watch the pope from St. Peter’s Square for the 10pm papal audience, as tickets to the coveted mass are available through the Vatican’s Web site and by miracle only. For pure beauty, the Pantheon and Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli (Capitoline hill) host truly amazing evening masses. Santa Maria Maggiore is the traditional church for midnight mass whose bells ring in Christmas day and where the first Christmas mass was said to be held. Santa Maria Maggiore also has one of the oldest nativity scenes, circa 13th century.
Family: Rome’s favorite Christmas Market is Piazza Navona where presepi, befana (the witch who brings you candy coal on Jan 6) and candy deck the oval-shaped piazza. This may be the best place to lose your children for a few hours whether to cotton candy, photos with a sleigh-bound Santa, last minute toys or a whirl around the giostra (an early 20th century carousel). Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna buzz with artists, performers and music for Toccata e Fuga, a holiday season event. The Auditorium, just beyond Piazza del Popolo, has its own mercatino with artisans, mini-carousel and Christmas treats plus an outdoor ice-skating rink, to go along with its musical program of holiday favorites. Though if weather is unwilling, Axel, a new indoor ice skating rink around the corner from the Auditorium, is smooth and ready for gliding. If skies are blue, head to Villa Borghese for a walk/bike/skate around the park or visit the Zoo.
Kids Only: Pint-size culture is very easy to find in Rome. The Children’s Museum Explora and Casina di Raffaello are specifically designed for the under 60 inches crowd. For those with an ancient thirst to quench, Rome Rewind has fun 3-D trip through the Roman Forum, or else come back to the fine arts future with children’s visits and labs (interactive and didactic programs) at museums including MAXXI, Palazzo delle Esposizioni (contemporary art), National Gallery of Contemporary and Modern Art, Gallery Borghese (Renaissance and Baroque), Capitoline Museums and Museo di Roma, among others.
Do you have questions or suggestions about Rome for the Holidays?
Photos by Erica Firpo