Rome for the Holidays: Christmas markets, nativity scenes and midnight mass

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The life-size nativity scene at St. Peter's Square is one of the city's most popular Christmas traditions. Photo: Hebe
The life-size nativity scene at St. Peter's Square is one of the city's most popular Christmas traditions. Photo: Hebe

Rome is a great place to visit in the holiday season. Thanks to the mild winter temperatures, the city stays vibrant and alive even during the coldest months of the year. There is something magical about strolling along the cobbled streets in the evening, eating chestnuts and admiring the lights strung up around the historical centre.

In fact, the weather is usually so good that it’s possible to sit outside with a steaming cup of hot chocolate or mulled wine and watch panicked Romans desperately try to finish their Christmas shopping. Just make sure you pack a warm coat and a scarf (but keep your sunglasses handy).

Here are some more great things to see and do in Rome to get into the holiday mood:

First things first: Take in the Christmas tree at the Colosseum. Photo: Wenzday01

Christmas tree at the Colosseum

An absolute must-see is the enormous Christmas tree currently illuminated in front of the Colosseum. It has been standing tall since early December and adds a fantastic glow to the ancient amphitheater.

Christmas Market in Piazza Navona

The “Mercantino di Natale” (Christmas Market) in Piazza Navona is considered a highlight of the Christmas scene here in Rome. It goes from November 24, 2012 to January 6, 2013, and features market stalls packed with Christmas-related ornaments, goodies and components to create do-it-yourself nativity scenes (“presepi”).

Piazza Navona is especially popular for gifts just before the Epiphany on January 6, which is a religious holiday featuring the Befana, an old witch-type lady who brings gifts to good children and lumps of coal to bad children (Harsh – I know!).

Weekdays: 10:00 am – 1:00 am
Holidays and days before Holidays: 10:00 am – 2:00 am

The Christmas market in Piazza Navona is one of the most visited in Rome. Photo: ianus

Nativity Scenes (“Presepi”)

Nativity scenes are traditionally elaborate in Italian culture, and while Naples is the “home” of the presepi, most Roman churches feature their own presepi during the holiday season. One of the most well-known nativity scenes in Rome is in Santa Maria Maggiore, which dates back to the 13th Century and is said to contain pieces of the original manger.

For people who are really keen on presepi, there is the comprehensive “100 Presepi, a Display of Nativity Scenes from Around the World” exhibition in the Sala del Bramante by Piazza del Popolo (admission charge). Via G. D’Annunzio (Piazza del Popolo)

Of course, a life-size nativity scene is also unveiled every year in St. Peters Square on Christmas Eve (pictured, at top). The presepe is open during the day and night, and is, of course, free.

Attending a mass in St. Peter’s Square. Photo: Trishhhh

Masses in Vatican City

Every year, thousands of visitors from around the globe flock to Saint Peter’s Square on Christmas Eve to watch the Pope on large, outdoor screens say midnight mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. He also delivers his Christmas message at noon on Christmas Day from a window above the square. Even if you’re not Christian, it is usually a fascinating cultural experience and a definite must if you love people watching.

More Christmas ideas

For more holiday suggestions, check out our previous posts on celebrating the Christmas season in Rome. This post offers some additional markets and details on ice skating in Rome, and this post offers suggestions for kid-friendly holiday activities in Rome.

Also in our guide: If you’re heading to Rome this holiday season (or anytime, really), be sure to swing by our Rome guide for recommendations on great budget hotels in central Rome.

About the author

Sarah Tighe is a Rome-based writer getting fat on pasta and loving it. When she’s not eating somewhere in the Eternal City, she’s busy studying a masters of journalism (but thinking about food).

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