Christmas in the Eternal City
Will you be celebrating Christmas in Rome and wondering where are the best places to get into the true spirit of this holiday season? Read on for ideas of where to celebrate and some of the top spots to eat, sleep and shop. And of course, enjoy wandering the cobblestone streets to take in the decorations and perhaps try a roasted chestnut or two!
THE SPIRIT OF GIVING
Every year, the Community of Sant’Egidio provides a beautiful Christmas lunch for the poor, lonely, sick and elderly - reaching almost 250,000 around the world in 2017 (60,000 people in Italy alone). The local community in Rome is halfway to raising €20,000 for this occasion. If you would like to put another seat at the table for someone less fortunate, please donate here.
CHRISTMAS IN THE VATICAN
Christmas is always a time of great beauty in the Vatican, celebrating the birth of Our Lord. Since December 7, the giant sand Nativity Scene has been open for public viewing in the middle of St. Peter’s Square, and, on the other side of the obelisk – the 23-meter-high red fir Christmas tree is ablaze with glistening lights.
Pope Francis will celebrate Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica (December 24, 2018, 9.30 pm). I would suggest lining up well before 6:00 pm if you want to get a seat. Tickets are free but I’ve heard some hotels’ concierges are charging up to €100 per ticket! If you didn’t book ahead through the Prefecture of the Papal Household, there are likely to be groups of people in the line with an extra ticket or two so don’t be afraid to go along the line and ask.
On 25 December at 12.00 pm, Pope Francis will read his Christmas message and give the Urbi et Orbi blessing from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s a beautiful spectacle with many members of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, Vatican Gendarmerie and pontifical bands in formation at the top of St. Peter’s Square.
On 31 December at 5.00 pm, the Pope will celebrate First Vespers for the Feast of Mary the Mother of God, followed by the exposition of the Holy Eucharist, the traditional singing of the Te Deum in thanksgiving for 2018, and the Eucharistic blessing.
On 1 January 2019 at 10.00 am, the Pope will celebrate Mass for the Feast of Mary the Mother of God in St. Peter’s Basilica. The theme for World Day of Peace for 2019 is “Good Politics is at the Service of Peace”.
On 6 January at 10.00 am, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The traditional end of the Christmas season is 2 February, 40 days after Christmas, which is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord or Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (commonly called Candlemas). Instead the Pope will mark the end of the Christmas Season by celebrating Mass inside the Sistine Chapel for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, on 13 January 2019. As a Papal tradition at this special Mass, the Holy Father baptizes several infants. In January 2018, he administered the Sacrament of Baptism on 34 babies!
A quick check of the Vatican Museums website shows that they are either closed or sold out of skip-the-line tickets from 23 December to 2 January. The week before and after this period are still completely open so get online and book to visit the Sistine Chapel without having to queue.
NATIVITY SCENES & CHRISTMAS CONCERTS
There is an exhibition being held from December 7 to January 13 of 100 different Nativity Scenes at Sala San Pio X in via della Conciliazione. There are many on display throughout Vatican City, some of which are inside various offices but also some displays that are open to the public inside St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel (when visiting the Vatican Museums). You’ll also find them in many Roman churches as you wander the city. Thanks to Romeing magazine for putting together this comprehensive list of concerts in Roman churches over the holidays!
If you’re looking for a unique and very fashionable Christmas market (for all the family) in Rome, check out the Dolce & Gabbana Sicilian Christmas Market at Rinascente with puppets, carts, lights, decorations and of course, exclusive D&G collectors’ pieces.
There are also artisans ready to customize sneakers, handbags and even beauty products! Did I mention the Dolce & Gabbana Panettone?
The Christmas Markets at Piazza Navona have a shady history. Over the 12 years I’ve lived in Rome, they’ve never particularly impressed and the last few years they’ve been shut down amidst corruption issues. This year they’re open but really a non-event. Despite this, Piazza Navona is beautiful at all times of the year and ALWAYS worth a visit.
The Christmas Village of EATALY is open over the long weekends leading up to Christmas, with many artisan collaborations (from leather bags and handmade jewelry to magic games for children). I love doing my special grocery shopping at Eataly for all the best Italian products. The best part is being able to stop along the way on each floor for perhaps a glass of Franciacorta or some freshly fried calamari and prawns!
Eataly Christmas Artisan Markets open: Friday 14, Saturday 15, Sunday 16, Friday 21, Saturday 22, Sunday 23, Monday 24 December (10:00 am to 9:00 pm).
CHRISTMAS TEA PARTY
Christmas Carols will be held in the Sala da Tè (Tea Rooms) of Babingtons, on Sunday 16 December, from 10:00 am to midday. It’s a lovely occasion on the Roman Christmas calendar each year. If you can’t make the party, their green and black Christmas teas make for excellent stocking stuffers!
FEAST WHERE YOU SLEEP
With many smaller local restaurants closing on Christmas Day and December 26 for Santo Stefano, you can be confident of a meal fit for a king in most 4-5 star hotels in the city. You’ll also find special seasonal rates at most until 31 December. Here are a few of my favorites (in alphabetical order):
Hotel de Russie: Christmas Eve Dinner (excluding wines) €90 p.p.; Christmas Day Brunch (excluding wines) €95 p.p.; Festive Brunch at Le Jardin de Russie - available on 15, 16, 22, 23, 24, 26, 29 and 30 December (excluding wines) €75 p.p.; New Year’s Eve Dinner, live music and sumptuous menu accompanied by matching wines and Gosset champagne €600 p.p.; New Year’s Day Brunch (excluding drinks) €95 p.p.
Parco dei Principi Grand Hotel and Spa: Christmas Eve menu (excluding wines) €87 p.p.; Christmas Lunch menu (excluding wines) €85 p.p.; New Year’s Eve ‘Beatles’ Night’, fireworks and seven-course menu (excluding wines) €250 p.p.; New Year’s Day Brunch (excluding drinks) €50 p.p./ Children under 12 €25
Rome Cavalieri, A Waldorf Astoria Resort: Christmas Eve menu at La Pergola by Chef Heinz Beck - eight courses accompanied by matching wines, with live piano music €490 p.p.; Christmas Eve menu at L’Uliveto (including wines) €250 p.p.; Christmas Eve menu at Tiepolo Lounge and Terrace (Oysters, raw seafood and Moët & Chandon) €98 p.p.; Christmas Dinner menu at La Pergola by Chef Heinz Beck - eight courses accompanied by matching wines, with live piano music €490 p.p.; Christmas Brunch menu at L’Uliveto (including wines) €170 p.p. (Children €75); *Santa Claus arrives on his sleigh with gifts for children in the Sala Ellisse from 1.00 pm; Christmas Day Golden chocolate caviar with Rum tasting at Tiepolo Lounge and Terrace €60 p.p.; Boxing Day (26 Dec) Christmas Detox - Selection of detox teas and biscuits at Tiepolo Lounge and Terrace €35 p.p.; New Year’s Eve Grand Gala at La Pergola by Chef Heinz Beck - nine courses accompanied by matching wines, with live music and fireworks €1,300 p.p.; New Year’s Eve six-course dinner at Le Belle Arti with matching wines and Moët & Chandon Champagne from 7.30 pm and disco from midnight €380 p.p.; New Year’s Eve with a View on the Terrazza degli Aranci (Grand Dessert Buffet and Moët & Chandon) with music and fireworks €190 p.p.; New Year’s Eve Lounge Party at Tiepolo Lounge and Terrace (Veuve Clicquot and savory delicacies) with fireworks and live music until dawn €210 p.p.; New Year’s Eve for children - entertainment, games and music from 7.00 pm to 2.00 am €90; New Year’s Day Brunch with live music in the Garden Lobby (excluding wines) €150 (children €65).