The Christmas holidays are fast approaching, and Rome is one of the most magical cities to celebrate the season. From the Roman markets to the amazing light displays, you won’t be short of feeling festive in Rome this winter…
Isn’t Christmastime so special? There’s just something in the air that really does make things merry and bright.
But wouldn’t it be amazing to spend your Christmas holiday in a city celebrating the season like no other? That festive city is Rome, and if you’re not entirely sure why it is the best place on earth to spend your Christmas vacation, I’ll give you 11 good reasons:
1. You won’t find gifts anywhere else in the world like at a Roman market!
Worried about bringing a ton of presents on an international flight? Do all of your Christmas shopping in Rome! Truly, the many markets set up around the city during the holiday season will have more unique gifts than you could find back home.
Piazza Navona’s every-day market transforms into a Christmas bazaar at the beginning of December through the sixth of January. Move from kiosk to kiosk looking at toys, roasted chestnuts, handmade crafts, and many other singular selections perfect for a friend or family member. While there, be sure to check out the surrounding restaurants for a hearty Italian meal as well as the Fountain of the Four Rivers, a fantastic example of Baroque style.
Interested in a gift that supports others? Head to Piazza Ankara for a market with charity sales, fair trade products, and an assortment of antiques. The best gifts are the ones that also give to others, a true reason to celebrate the Christmas season.
2. See Christmas light displays like never before as you walk through Rome’s ancient streets.
Looking for a different kind of Christmas light display this year? Look no further than the lights decorating Rome’s centro storico, or city center. Imagine walking through thousand-year-old streets as colorful lights in delightful designs hang above you, illuminating your path.
The Christmas celebration in Rome is a bit later than in America. The season officially begins on December 8th, the day of the Immaculate Conception and lasts through January 6th, the day of the Epiphany. While Italians exchange gifts on Christmas morning, the season isn’t over just yet! Epiphany gifts for children are also given the morning of the 6th, so you can enjoy the festive season even after Christmas Day.
3. Receive a Christmas blessing from the Pope.
Can you imagine receiving a Christmas blessing from the Pope, in person? You absolutely can if you’re in the Vatican City at noon on Christmas Day when Pope Francis delivers his message and gives the traditional blessing Urbi et orbi—“to the city of Rome and to the whole world.”
Even if you are not Catholic, this once in a lifetime event should not be missed while in Rome. Receive a message of peace, something we all can appreciate, no matter our walk of life. Attend the service for free, but be sure to get a spot early. Every year there is a huge crowd waiting to receive a Christmas blessing from the Pope.
4. Feast on authentic Italian cuisine for Christmas lunch.
As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” and Romans eat a big lunch on Christmas Day. Not able (or don’t want!) to cook a meal where you’re staying? Plenty of restaurants will be open, serving delicious dishes of traditional Christmas meals and desserts.
Meat-lovers rejoice—a typical Roman Christmas lunch includes abbacchio, lamb cooked with garlic and rosemary, sometimes small pieces of ham, and served with potatoes or another hearty vegetable. Don’t worry, pasta will be on your plate too. Usually the first course is a pasta dish, like gnocchi alla Romana. Finally, treat yourself to the traditional dessert pangiallo, a yellow bread filled with nuts, dates, chocolate, honey, and more.
A large dinner is also served on Christmas Eve before midnight mass. This dinner, sometimes known as “The Feast of the Seven Fishes,” features a variety of fish, shellfish, and other delicacies. You’ll never experience a better seafood dinner than in Italy!
5. Move over, Santa Claus—La Befana, the good witch, brings gifts to Italian children.
Since Italians also give children presents on the Epiphany, it seems natural there would be another loving and legendary figure to deliver the presents! Enter La Befana, a good witch, who brings presents to good little girls and boys (and lumps of coal to the naughty ones!). Sounds just like Santa Claus, doesn’t it? But instead of a sleigh and magic reindeer, La Befana rides her broom around Italy to deliver toys.
But how did La Befana become a part of the Epiphany celebration? The story goes that as the Wise Men traveled to see Baby Jesus, they came across La Befana and her cozy cottage. She hosted them for the night, and the next day, the Wise Men invited her to join them on their journey. La Befana decided not to join them, but packed a basket of gifts for Baby Jesus and set off to find him on her own. The Wise Men may have beaten her, but La Befana still delivers toys, chocolates, and other treats to the good children of Rome.
6. Forget Rockefeller Center—check out the gorgeous Christmas tree at the Colosseum.
The Christmas Tree at the Colosseum may be a tad shorter than the one at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, but with a backdrop as breathtaking as the ancient Roman stadium, you won’t miss a few feet’s difference.
Rome’s Colosseum exemplifies the best of the best of ancient architecture in the world. The grand amphitheater seats over 50,000 spectators and is made of stone and concrete. In the First Century AD, many events such as sports competitions, dramatic plays, and executions took place in the Colosseum. Over the time, much of the structure has been destroyed; however, restoration projects began in the 1990s and continue today.
Stop by the famous Roman amphitheatre during the holidays for a seasonal selfie in front of the colossal Colosseum and its magnificent Christmas tree.
7. The ornate Nativity scenes crafted by Roman churches will take your breath away.
Typically, Nativity scenes set up at Christmas are small and sit upon a table in your home. Rome takes the Nativity scene to a whole different level. Churches around the city create spectacular scenes of all different sizes and styles.
For instance, some scenes feature life-size figures, such as the Nativity at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Others include the entire city of Bethlehem or a whole host of angels, singing hymns above the manger.
It makes sense that the Nativity plays a huge role during Christmas for Italians—the first one was created by St. Francis of Assisi in Italy, in 1223 AD. St. Francis received permission from the Pope to set up a manger in a cave in Greccio, a small Italian village, with two live animals—a donkey and ox. St. Frances then preached about the birth of Baby Jesus to the villagers. Today, the tradition lives on throughout the world during the Christmas season.
8. Go to a Christmas concert at The Auditorium.
Who doesn’t love listening to classic carols at Christmas? (Maybe Ebeneezer Scrooge at the beginning of the story.) For the rest of us, carols and Christmas music are an important part of the celebration. And at The Auditorium in Rome, you have the chance to hear fantastic selections of Christmas songs from a variety of performers.
Check out “Christmas Gold” by the King’s Singers sextet for a concert of a cappella-style Christmas songs. In 2018, the King’s Singers celebrate 50 years and recently released a three-part compilation album called “Gold,” which includes Christmas carols. On Christmas Day, Benedict Gospel Choir will sing of Jesus’ birth with up-tempo gospel selections. Traveling all the way from Columbia, South Carolina, the group clearly has international-caliber talent.
9. Attend Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Could there be a more reverent place to celebrate Christmas than Vatican City? Attending the midnight Christmas Eve Mass will certainly leave a lasting impression no matter your religious affiliation.
Mass occurs in the awe-inspiring St. Peter’s Basilica, a grand cathedral built over St. Peter’s grave. Pope Francis himself gives the homily—last year’s focused on the children of the world. Since the service is free, seating quickly disappears, so be sure to plan accordingly and get tickets way in advance.
10. Italian Christmas cookies aren’t the only dessert you’ll find during the holiday season.
Let’s face it: No one diets during the holidays. There are too many delicious desserts to eat! Italy is famous for its Christmas cookies and other tasty treats.
The most classic cake is Panettone, cylindrical in shape and filled with citrus fruits like orange and lemon, as well as raisins. Torrone, a nut-filled confection, varies from a soft nougat consistency to a hard brittle. The bulk of the dessert is made from egg whites, sugar, and honey. Pandoro, a tall, egg-rich cake, has eight points, resembling a star from the top. Vanilla, citrus fruits, or other flavors can be added to the cake, and powdered sugar adds a finishing touch.
Chances are if you come from an Italian family or knew one growing up, you’ve had your fair share of Italian Christmas cookies. Biscotti, pizzettes, sugar spritz cookies, and many more fill the hearts and stomachs of Italian families, no matter where they live in the world.
11. Did you know you can go ice-skating in Rome?
Nothing compares to ice-skating below the stars during the Christmas season, and Rome doesn’t disappoint with its rinks located around the city.
Skate at the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was once a mausoleum and now is a museum, near the Tiber River. Built by Emperor Hadrian for he and his family, the building is now a museum and provides an incredible backdrop for your ice-skating fun and frivolity. The Auditorium, Rome’s music hub, may be known for its concerts, but there is also a skating rink set up outside the concert hall each year. Grab a pair of skates before or after a Christmas concert for the ultimate holiday experience. Finally, at Rome’s Piazzale Ankara, if you’re over shopping, skate to your heart’s content amidst the Christmas market.
Ready to “Jingle All the Way” to Rome?
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