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Christmas Traditions in Rome, Italy

What to See and Do in Rome During the Christmas Holiday Season


Rome is a top Italian city to visit during the Christmas holiday season and the place where the celebration of Christmas originated. The first Christmas mass was said at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore and the earliest known permanent nativity was created for the Rome Jubilee in 1300.

Here are the top Rome Christmas sights during the Christmas holiday season, from early December through Epiphany on January 6. Enjoy more pictures taken in December in our Christmas in Rome Photo Album.

Piazza Navona Christmas Market

rome christmas market photo, piazza navona christmas market
Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com

In December Piazza Navona, Rome's famous Baroque square, is transformed into a huge Christmas market. You'll find stands selling all kinds of Christmas sweets, toys, nativity figures, decorations, and gifts. There's a merry-go-round and Babbo Natale, Father Christmas, makes an appearance to delight the kids. A large nativity scene is erected in the square later in December, too. See more about Piazza Navona

Saint Peter's Square

vatican christmas tree photo
Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com

Each year a huge Christmas tree is erected in Saint Peter's Square. A life-size nativity is also set up but usually not unveiled until Christmas Eve. Thousands of visitors flock to Saint Peter's Square when the Pope says midnight mass on Christmas Eve inside Saint Peter's Basilica (in the square it's shown on big screen TVs) and delivers his Christmas message at noon on Christmas Day from the window of his apartment above the square. December 13 there's a colorful parade to Saint Peter's Square for Santa Lucia Day. See more about Saint Peter's Square

Santa Maria Maggiore Christmas Crib

rome nativity photo
Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com

The nativity in Santa Maria Maggiore is said to be the oldest presepe or permanent nativity scene. It was carved in marble by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century, a commission for the first Rome Jubilee held in 1300. Although originally displayed in the church, it's currently on display in the museum of Santa Maria Maggiore. Below the altar is a reliquary said to contain pieces of the original manger. It's kept in a niche the same dimensions as the cave where Jesus was born. The first Christmas mass was said in Santa Maria Maggiore. The bells are rung at midnight to signify the start of Christmas.

Nativity Scene Displayed at the Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano

presepe photo
Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com

The Church of Saints Cosma and Damiano, above the forum, displays one of the largest nativity scenes (open Friday - Sunday except in August, 9:00-1:00 and 3:00-6:00). Commissioned by Charles III of Naples, it includes not just religious figures but also intricate figurines of people from everyday life. Six master woodcarvers worked on the scene for forty years, adding new figures each year. Figurines representing royalty are dressed in fine fabrics. This presepe started the Naples style nativity, which still includes figures from everyday life. The city of Rome bought it and restored it in the 1930's. I was shown the presepe and Santo Bambino (below) as a guest on a Context Travel Rome walking tour.

Santo Bambino in the Church of Santa Maria Aracoeli

santo bambino photo
Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com
In the 16th century, a statue was carved from a piece of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane. According to legend, after the statue was carved it miraculously painted itself. Returning to Rome, the ship sank but the statue washed up on shore. It was blessed by the Pope and kept in the Church of Santa Maria Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. In the early 1990's, the original was stolen so a new piece of olive wood was requested to carve a reproduction, again blessed by the Pope. Roman children write their Christmas letters to Santo Bambino. On Christmas Eve the statue is put in the church's presepe and on January 6, he's paraded down the church stairs. Thousands of people come for the procession.

Christmas Trees

rome christmas photo
Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com
Christmas trees are really not an Italian tradition but are starting to become more popular. In addition to the tree in Saint Peter's Square, two of the largest Christmas trees in Rome are usually erected in Piazza Venezia and next to the Colosseum. There's also a tree in the area in front of the Museums on the Capitoline Hill. Some shops, hotels, and restaurants display small trees. Tree decorations are usually fairly simple, often just lights.

Lights, Ice Skating and Roasting Chestnuts

rome ice skating photo
Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com
Rome's main streets are decorated with lights and often have entertainment by roving musicians and vendors selling roasted chestnuts. A good place to go is the shopping streets near Piazza di Spagna. An outdoor ice skating rink, open daily from 10:00 to midnight (with earlier closing on the actual holidays) is set up near Castel Sant'Angelo where there's also a small Christmas market.

Menorrah in Piazza Barberini

rome piazza barberini photo, rome menorah photo
Martha Bakerjian, licensed to About.com
Rome has a large Jewish population and Hanukkah is another important holiday celebrated in December. A large Menorrah is erected in Piazza Barberini and one candle is lit each night during the Hanukkah season.

100 Presepi - Nativity Display

Nativity scenes, or presepi, are the traditional Italian Christmas decoration. 100 Presepi, with nativity scenes from all over Italy and other parts of the world, is an annual traditional display held in Sala del Bramante in Piazza del Popolo from late November through January 6, 9:30AM to 8PM. Piazza del Popolo is also a top spot for celebrating New Year's Eve in Rome.

December in Rome

In addition to Christmas festivities, Rome celebrates several other holidays in December. Here's more about what to do in Rome in December.

How is Christmas Celebrated in Italy

Find out about Italy's Christmas traditions, markets, nativities, and events during the holiday season in December through January 6, Epiphany.

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