Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, December 8, 2023

The Holidays in Rome, Part I: Markets, Displays, The Vatican, Worshipping

RST is pleased to welcome back guest blogger Theresa Potenza (her last RST post was in 2018 on holidays in Rome and before that on the Etruscans in nearby Cerveteri  - she's a scholar of Etruscan history). Based in Rome, Potenza is an art historian, private tour guide, and freelance writer. To learn more about her private tours of Rome and read her travel and feature stories about Italy, check out: (Also, her article here, on giving birth in Rome during Covid - an amazing tale [yes, they both got Covid] - and at the end of the post a photo of Theresa and her family.)

This is the first of two posts - since there is so much happening in Rome over the holidays. Part II, which will go up in a week or so, features "Listen" (music apart from the religious context, which is detailed below), "Taste" (special holiday restaurant meals), and "See" (exhibitions and light shows).


There is no better place to visit than Rome during the holidays.  A city that is eternally enchanting becomes even more so during the magic of Christmastime. The holiday season traditionally begins in Italy with the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 and ends with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6.  The Eternal City is the center of the action and provides many opportunities and occasions to celebrate. Whether you want to shop, eat, pray, or witness the great spectacles of holiday cheer, here is an updated list of what to do and where in Rome during winter 2023.

Holiday markets

Above, another photo of the Piazza Navona market
(photo at top of post also is from the market).
One of the city’s oldest Christmas traditions is the Mercatino della Befana in Piazza Navona.  The Baroque square with Bernini’s fountain has been a backdrop for holiday magic and events for hundreds of years. In the ancient times the area was a stadium for track and field competitions, and in the 17th century it was the stage for elaborate events for the Papal Pamphili family. Since about the 18th century when the legend of the Italian witch known as the befana became popular, the square has been a favorite destination for Roman families and tourists alike shopping for, among other things, candy “coal." According to Italian legend, the befana witch delivers presents or coal in stockings for children the night before the Epiphany. As the legend has it, the three Magi stopped the befana to ask for directions on their way to bring gifts to newborn Jesus. She apparently did not have directions and is still out wandering, visiting families. The story began in Rome and is still thriving in Italian households and especially in Piazza Navona. At the market you can enjoy a carousel ride, puppet shows, games, and stalls selling candy, hand-crafted befana, nativity sets and other crafts. The festival will be open until the day of Epiphany of January 6.

The largest Christmas festival in the city, Il Natale nel Mondo, will be held in Villa Borghese. Covering an area of 60,000 mq, it hosts everything you can dream of for Christmas. You will find original folklore shows, gospel concerts, a chocolate factory, an ice-skating rink, Santa’s house, a double-decker carousel, life-sized nativity scenes, reproductions of cities around the world, and food and wine stalls. What more could you ask for Christmas?, [Website in Italian; try your translator if you need it. Tickets may be purchased online through the website.]

The city hosts several small artisan markets throughout December in various locations where you can shop for anything from hand-made ornaments to specialty chocolates. Most of the markets run earlier in the month and finish by Christmas Eve, designed for those getting a head start on gift shopping. For some of the best local Italian food items, check out the Testaccio market until December 24. You can find the program for Rome’s markets on the city’s website, [Great information, again, in Italian.]

Christmas displays

This year, Rome’s Christmas tree will be displayed in Piazza del Popolo, instead of its usual location in Piazza Venezia. The tree comes from Como in northern Italy [a shout-out to Dianne's relatives' home province] and was lit today, December 8, a public holiday in Italy.

The Vatican Christmas tree will be lit and the nativity scene unveiled instead on December 9, following the Pope’s celebration of the Immaculate Conception on December 8.

The Vatican

As you can imagine, the Vatican makes a big deal out of Christmas, making it one of the most magical destinations to visit and celebrate in December. The decorations in St. Peter’s Square include an 80-foot silver fir tree from Cuneo in Northern Italy, decorated with edelweiss native to the Alps, and a life size nativity scene. Every year different artists from around the world are chosen for a creative nativity display. This year the nativity set will feature terracotta statues made by the Italian diocese in Rieti. The life-sized figures are designed to commemorate the 800-year anniversary of the first living nativity started by St. Francis in 1223 in the town of Greccio. The anniversary of the live nativity also corresponds with the celebration of Pope Francis’ 87th birthday in December. In the colonnade of St. Peter's Square there will be a display of 100 artistic nativity sets, an annual art exhibition known as 100 Presepe. [See Larry Litman's RST post about the presepe display in 2020.} 

Nativity scene at St. Peter's 2020. Photo by Larry Litman. 


It is also worth a day trip to the historic village of Greccio, just an hour outside Rome, for a creative collection of artistic nativity scenes, and to walk through history as it relates to the life of St. Francis.


To celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the official start of the holiday season in Rome, Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to the statue of the Virgin Mary at the Spanish Steps on December 8. On Christmas Eve, “midnight” mass will be held at 7:30pm inside St. Peter's Basilica, and the Pope will also greet the crowds on Christmas Day at noon for the “Urbi et Orbi” benediction. It is also possible to attend the Pope’s Te Deum prayers on New Year's Eve inside St. Peter's Basilica at 5pm.

The official Vatican website provides a calendar of holy celebrations by Pope Francis. [Website in Italian].

For English language mass, you can reference the web pages for St. Patrick's Catholic American Parish, which will offer a family mass on Christmas Eve at 4:30pm, and the “midnight” mass at 7:30pm.

All Saints Anglican Church will have a Crib service at 5pm on Christmas Eve, and the “midnight” mass at 11:30pm.

St. Paul's Within the Walls church will host a grand Christmas concert on December 23rd with solo artists, choir and orchestra, featuring popular holiday music. [Website in both Italian and English].

St. Paul's Within the Walls 

Left, author Theresa Potenza and her family. Photo by Rome photographer

Part II next week!

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