By Nicole Arriaga in Rome—
When it comes to holiday festivities, Rome doesn’t exactly turn into tinsel town. That’s partly because the holiday season in Italy is focused on the religious aspects of the celebration, rather than on leaving presents under the Christmas tree.
Christmas traditions in Italy
Italians wait to give gifts to children until January 6 when La Befana, a witch on a broomstick, delivers presents to children. If Roman children have been naughty, tradition has it they should receive carbone (coal), so you’ll notice pastry shops selling confections of witches with baskets and caldrons of coal-shaped candy.
Despite these differences, you can still easily get into the holiday spirit in Rome. The city offers several “winter wonderland” activities for you to marvel at and enjoy. Seven of my favorite spots are:
Traditional Christmas Market (Centro Storico)
Through January 6, 2011
Each year, Rome’s most beautiful piazza hosts a traditional Christmas market where you can find stands of candy, trinkets, ornaments and other bric-a-brac. And yes, you can pick up one of the famous witches mentioned earlier with her caldron.
Ice Park Christmas Village (San Giovanni)
Piazza Re di Roma
Through January 11, 2011; 10 a.m.-midnight
People of all ages can enjoy skating on ice at the Ice Park Christmas Village in the San Giovanni neighborhood. It doesn’t cost you a thing to get in. All you have to do is pay for the rental of the skates. The park also puts on daily shows and ice-skating exhibitions.
The Immaculate Conception – Papal Procession
December 8, 2010; 4 p.m.
Near the Spanish Steps
Every year on the day of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), the Pope pays homage to the Virgin Mary with a procession to Piazza Mignanelli near the Spanish Steps at around 4 p.m. The tradition, which dates back to 1958, calls for the Pope to leave a floral wreath on the statue of the Madonna after he has knelt for prayer.
Chanukkah – Light of the Menorah (Centro Storico)
Starting on December 1, every evening just before dusk you can celebrate the candle lighting of a large menorah at Piazza Barberini.
Nativity Scene at the Vatican
St. Peter’s Square
December 24, 2010-January 9, 2011
The nativity scene at St. Peter’s Square is one of the most beautiful things to witness around Christmastime in Rome. Each year, a gargantuan presepe (nativity scene) is constructed in the center of Piazza San Pietro. The scene is open to visit day and night for free.
Christmas Midnight Mass at the Vatican
St. Peter’s Square
December 24, midnight
For those who wish to attend the midnight Papal Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, you can try to score tickets for the service by sending a request through the Vatican’s Web site. By now, however, the chances of getting tickets are pretty slim, but you can still try.
Alternatively, if you don’t land tickets, you can stand among the thousands of worshipers, pilgrims and onlookers in Piazza San Pietro around 10 p.m. when Pope Benedict XVI gives his Christmas Eve Mass.
Christmas Tree in Piazza Venezia (Centro Storico)
The lighting of a beautiful Christmas tree in Piazza Venezia traditionally takes place late November. Due to this year’s torrential rainfall and ongoing student protests in the city center, however, the traditional lighting has been postponed. Once the lights are hung, she’s definitely a beauty. City workers should finish the decorating of the Christmas tree by December 8, as per tradition. So, keep your eyes peeled.