A taxi driver recently told me that Christmas isn’t a time for pomp and circumstance, that’s Easter. I beg to differ. Rome may not be a NYC-set rom com during the holidays but the Eternal City brings the Christmas cheer from from the beginning of December through January 6 with events, decorations, nativity scenes and tradition.
Kicking off the Christmas Holidays
In Italy, Christmas is not just a day, it’s three in a row plus another week. From the eve of December 24 through December 26 (Feast of Santo Stefano), we are with family and friends eating and celebrating, followed by New Year’s festivities, some downtime and then January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. But we all know the celebrations start in early December. Bari, Puglia and the entire region of Trentino-Alto Adige kick off with St. Nick on December 5, Milan on December 7 with Sant’Ambrosio, and the rest of Italy on December 8 with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
December 8th’s, Festa dell’Immacolata, is my favourite hometown celebration. Piazza di Spagna becomes a stage of spectacle and prayer when firefighters make a dawn climb to a statue atop a column.
At 7am, the piazza is already crowded with priests, firetrucks, police bands, and guests awaiting the firefighters who climb up a ladder to the statue of the Virgin Mary, bringing wreathes, flowers and offerings. Through out the morning, children (like my daughter and her school) carry wreathes, individuals, groups and organizations bring offerings, bands play, and by the end of the day, the Pope makes an appearance. And almost every year, rain or shine, we’re there at the crack of dawn.
Christmas Markets and Ice Skating Rinks
Everybody loves a Christmas market. Gluhwein, hot chocolate, tchotchkes and ice skating, who doesn’t? Across the city, we have decorations, boutiques and Christmas markets. I am partial to tradition rather than an ersatz holiday village so my favourite is Piazza Navona’s mercatino di natale with its vintage carousel, game vendors, Christmas candy and presepi (nativity scene) artisans.
Christmas World at Villa Borghese is brand new. Set up in Rome’s centre park Villa Borghese, Christmas World looks like the Epcot of Christmas markets with city-specific sets like Paris, Tokyo, Laplands, London Berlin and even ice skating under the Brooklyn Bridge.
Christmas Time in Auditorium is a little more toned down, and a local favourite usually hosting a kitschy Christmas Village – photo ops, food, gifts and ice skating rink. Renzo Piano’s Auditorium is a stunning back drop for skating rinks.
Mercatino Natalizia in Piazza Mazzini is a repeat tradition in the Prati neighbourhood. Running through December 30, the outdoor market is a tiny and charming version of a Northern European Christmas market with crafts, food, gifts, and decorations.
I’m awaiting confirmation about the ice skating rink next to Castel Sant’Angelo, once called Grinzing Village. Again, the setting is spectacular with the monument as backdrop and the historic carousel next to it. Often times, there is a market nearby along the river (where the book vendors are). Likewise, the little village in Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) where a vintage and lifestyle Rome street scene diorama is set up. Fingers crossed one or both return this year.
Lights, Nativities and Concerts
Trees, street decorations, nativities, Rome has it all. By December 8, decorations are up throughout the centro storico and we love to walk around the Tridente – Piazza di Spagna, Via dei Condotti, Via del Corso, in particular, to see the decorations. And of course, we’re always on the hunt for Christmas trees and won’t miss the trees in Piazza Venezia, Piazza San Pietro, Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina and Piazza del Colosseo.
Our favourite hunt is for the presepi, gorgeously crafted nativity scenes that will be in every home and church and the occasional piazza and shop. Each nativity is personalised vignette of the Christmas story, with a little artistic license. For example, ours includes an X-Wing. Rome fan favourites are the usually larger than life nativity in Saint Peter’s Square and the exhibition of 100 Presepi (in St. Peter’s colonnade). I am partial to church presepi- recent favourites are the tiny Chiesa di Santa Barbara dei Librari (Campo dei Fiori), the ancient Basilica di Santa Prassede (Esquilino) and Chiesa di Sant’Eustachio (Pantheon).
Barqoue, gospel, carols, there are concerts for all kinds of music lovers. The big draw is usually the Vatican concert, this year on December 17 held at the Auditorium Santa Cecilia and the December 18 Concerto di Natale at Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. For a super suggestive location, the Cripta dei Cappuccini, the crazy Capuchin Cript hosts a Baroque music concert with dinner on December 22. The Auditorium hosts a series of Christmas-themed concerts through December and January. And frankly if you search “Rome Christmas Concerts” in Google, a well-informed chronological event list will rank.
Keep your eyes and ears open for outdoor events. On the evening of December 12, the Swedish and Scandinavian communities celebrate the Festa di Santa Lucia with a candle light procession at Piazza di Pietra. Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere often presents a live action nativity and And I’m still trying to find out if Via dei Coronari will have a procession.
La Befana, an Epiphany
Coming to Rome after December 25 or January 1 and think you missed the celebrations? Don’t worry, the holidays last through January 6, the Epiphany. Or better yet, La Befana, Italy’s answer to Mr. Scrooge, a naughty witch flies around the countryside stuffing stockings with sweets and treats or carbone (edible, sugary charcoal). Make sure to walk around Piazza Navona to catch a glimpse of the Befana and her minions.
Restaurants at Christmas and New Year’s
“Does everything close on Christmas?” Not quite. Traditionally, businesses lock up from Christmas eve to December 26, and New Year’s Eve through January 2, but there are exceptions and great meals to be enjoyed. Please email me at email@example.com for my curated map and list of restaurants for the holidays in Rome and Milan.