Although Rome may not be as popular in the winter, it is still a great place to visit at any time of the year and no more so than during the festive season. Celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Rome begins with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and ends with the Feast of the Epiphany.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception
L’Immacolata Concezione (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) is celebrated on December 8th. One of the highlights of the day is a procession led by the Pope to the statue of the Madonna at the Piazza Mignanelli where he lays a floral wreath. On this day churches throughout Rome also unveil their presepi (nativity scenes/cribs). For an exhibition of 100 presepi made in a wide variety of materials from iron, wood and glass to buttons, chocolate and bread, make your way to the Basilica of Santa Maria dei Popolo in Piazza del Popolo.
Christmas at St Peter’s square
To celebrate the true meaning of Christmas head for the Vatican and Piazza San Pietro (St Peter’s square). Every year in front of Basilica di San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Basilica), a huge Christmas tree adorned with lights is erected together with a life-size nativity scene. If you haven’t got a ticket for the Christmas Eve mass in St Peter’s Basilica said by the Pope you can join the huge crowds gathered in St Peter’s square to watch a live broadcast of the service. And, at noon on Christmas day, the Pope delivers his traditional yearly message from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.
Throughout December and up until January 6th Piazza Navona is transformed into a vast Christmas market with stalls selling Christmas decorations, toys, gifts and sweets, while street performers juggle and dance under the beautifully illuminated Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. In the evening the restaurants come alive with the locals enjoying festive food in the company of family and friends.
You can’t celebrate Christmas in Rome without savouring some of their festive cuisine. Dinner on Christmas Eve is all about fish. Fritto misto alla romano is a fish dish (typically cod) served with fried vegetables such as zucchini, artichokes and broccoli.
Pangiallo, the traditional Christmas cake of Lazio has its origins in ancient imperial Rome. At that time it was customary to distribute pangiallo during the festival of the winter solstice to encourage the return of the sun. It was traditionally made from a mixture of dried fruit, honey and candied citrus peel and then cooked and covered with a layer of egg batter. Today it may also include almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, raisins and pistachios.
At Christmas and New Year, restaurants in Rome pull out all of the stops to serve amazing cuisine. So make sure you enjoy at least one of these special meals during your visit.
Celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Rome with fireworks and concerts
Rome enjoys one of its biggest parties of the year on New Year’s eve (La Festa di San Silvestro). Although you will find celebrations going on all over the city, one of the most popular places to celebrate is at the Piazza del Popolo where huge crowds of people gather together to enjoy the music and fireworks. However, the count down to the new year and fireworks can be enjoyed from any number of historic places around the city. For example, the Colloseum, the Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps with the backdrop of the Trinita dei Monti Church at the top of the steps are all great places to enjoy the fun and spectacular firework displays.
Another really great way to enjoy New Year’s Eve is at the New Year’s Eve concert, Concerto di Capodanno, held at the Waldensian Evangelical church. In addition to enjoying opera arias, the traditional sounds of the waltz-king Johann Strauss and the most famous Christmas songs in the Waldensian Evangelical Church you will also be able to greet the New Year with a glass of sparkling champagne and typical Italian desserts.
St. Stephen’s Day
La Festa di Santo Stefano (St Stephen’s Day) on December 26th is a national holiday in Italy. St Stephen was a deacon of the early church of Jerusalem and is believed to be the first Christian martyr having died about 33 AD. Because it is a national holiday banks, offices, shops and other public places are closed but you may find some museums that are open. However, because the nativity is a symbol of St Stephen, many Italians celebrate the day by visiting the many presepi around the city.
The Feast of the Epiphany
La festa dell’Epifania (the feast of the Epiphany) falls on January 6th (the 12th day of Christmas) and is the final holiday of the Christmas season and your last chance for celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Rome. The Epiphany marks the day the Magi (the three King or Wise men) came to visit the baby Jesus. It is also on this day that Italian children celebrate the arrival of La Befana, a good witch who is as popular in Italy as Santa Claus. It is thought that La Befana is in search of the baby Jesus and in her search gives gifts to children on the eve of Epiphany. To buy a Befana doll, visit the Christmas market at Piazza Navona where you’ll find lots for sale.
There are other celebrations on this day one of which is in Vatican city. Hundreds of people dressed in medieval costume and carrying symbolic gifts for the Pope make their way along the wide avenue leading up to the Vatican. The Pope then says morning mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica.
What’s the weather like at Christmas?
It’s generally quite wet and chilly at this time of year and it can feel even colder after the sun goes down. However, with the darker afternoons not only do you get to enjoy the Christmas lights even more, but as the Italians and other tourists hit the streets, you will find plenty of warmth and good cheer which will help you to forget the cold. Nevertheless do make sure you go prepared with warm and rain-proof clothes and comfortable waterproof shoes. Also check that your hotel/accommodation has heating! Celebrating Christmas and the New Year in Rome is definitely better if you have got somewhere warm to retreat to at the end of a busy and exhausting day.