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How to Celebrate Christmas in Rome

Christmas in Rome. The streets are illuminated by twinkling fairy lights and the smell of roast chestnuts fills the air. Seasonal celebrations are still very traditional here, nativity scenes take pride of place in piazzas and churches host special Christmas services and even concerts. Enjoy our top picks and tips to help you celebrate Christmas in the Eternal City and have a truly magical experience.

 

Festivities kick off on December 8 with L’immacolata, the Immaculate Conception, a public holiday in Italy to mark the belief that the Virgin Mary was free of original sin. Though this is the religious start to the season, lights and decorations are already on display at the beginning of December, so the city feels Christmassy all month.

 

 

 

 

Christmas Trees & Lights

 

There are Christmas trees throughout the city, but in terms of showstoppers, there are a couple to make sure you add to your Rome itinerary.

 

The tradition of placing a Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square goes back to 1982, and each year the tree is donated by a different European location. This year, the Vatican Christmas tree is an 82-foot White Spruce from the Italian Alps, decorated with white edelweiss flowers. The unveiling takes place on December 9.

 

Due to ongoing construction works for Metro C, there will be no tree in Piazza Venezia in 2023. Instead, the city’s official tree moves to Piazza del Popolo.

 

 

 

After 2017’s ‘Spelacchio’ (meaning mangy or bald, to describe the tree’s threadbare appearance) went viral around the world, Rome residents look forward to the city’s official tree with a mixture of dread and delight. (In the end the sagging spruce took on a kind of anti-hero status and locals tied messages of admiration to its branches.)

 

You don’t have to wander far in the Historic Center to see sparkly Christmas lights and decorations. Via del Corso is one of the busiest streets at any time of year, but especially so in December as people admire the lights and do their Christmas shopping at the same time.

 

The displays continue at the Spanish Steps where, this year, fashion house Dior is responsible for the piazza’s centerpiece.

 

 

 

Piazza Navona Christmas Market

 

The stunning Piazza Navona is a wonderful backdrop to the traditional Christmas market held there. The market offerings themselves can be somewhat changeable as each year there seems to some kind of scandal about which stalls are awarded permits. The market is smaller than it once was, but it’s worth heading there to see what sweet treats and handcrafted items you’ll find. The more consistent highlights are the nativity scene and old-fashioned carousel.

 

 

 

 

Nativity Scenes or Presepi

 

The Nativity Scene, known as a presepe in Italian, is a strongly held tradition in Italy. Many families still display beautiful and detailed displays of not just Jesus’ manger but the whole village surrounding it. Most churches also display their own Presepe, ranging from miniature to life size. The scenes can be quite complex and occasionally feature figurines of present-day popular figures too. The annual 100 Presepi exhibition that takes place at St. Peter’s Square includes scenes set around the world in all different shapes and styles.

 

 

 

 

Midnight Mass and Seeing the Pope

 

Many churches put on a midnight mass service on Christmas Eve, but the most famous is held at the Vatican (and actually starts before midnight at 10pm). Tickets for inside the basilica must be secured in advance and are hard to obtain but you can also watch the service from big screens outside in St. Peter’s Square.

 

On Christmas Day the Pope blesses the crowd in his special Urbi et Orbi (to Romans and the world) speech from the loggia of St. Peter’s. Again, the event is free to attend without a ticket but get there early to find a spot and prepare for crowds.

 

 

 

December 2023 Events in Rome

 

Christmas World, Villa Borghese. 2 December – 7 January

Ice Christmas Village, Ponte Milvio, 3 December – 8 January

100 Presepi Exhibition, Piazza San Pietro, 8 December – 8 January

The Nutcracker, Teatro dell’Opera, 21-31 December

Giftland Vintage Market, Ragusa Off, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17 December 2023.

Green Market Festival on Christmas, Città dell’Altra Economia, 8-10 December

 

 

Hoping to pick up some souvenirs while you’re in town? Enjoy our previous post on unique gifts in Rome

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