Christmas Eve in Rome: Midnight Mass at Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (Free Italy Travel Advice)

|image1| Every Christmas Eve, the 124 stone steps leading to the Altar of the
Heavens, or the <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>Ara Coeli,
are illuminated by flickering candlelight atop the highest point of
Capitoline Hill in <a
Traditional Christmas songs from leather-sandaled bagpipers weave their
way through the crowds who ascend the seemingly never-ending stairs on
a pilgrimage to <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (SEE OUR <a

Upon entering, chandeliers and tapers welcome both visitors and locals
alike into the warmth of the 7th-century church, transporting the
faithful to an era long ago. With candles blazing and anticipation
rising, one of Rome’s most venerated <a
traditions begins.

According to legend, when Augustus returned to Rome after news of
Julius Caesar’s assassination, he saw a vision of a young
woman holding a child whom Sibyl would identify as Jesus Christ calling
him the king of heaven and earth. An altar was immediately dedicated in
honor of the divine vision and was named the Ara Coelestis. Now, the
altar is claimed to have stood in the place of the medieval Roman
church illuminated by candles every Christmas Eve and the church,
itself, remains the designated church of the Senate and the Roman
people today.

Like most European churches, Santa Maria in Ara Coeli is a
combination of architecture, art and tombs (most notably the remains of
the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helen) from every
era and period. A tombstone signed by <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>Donatello,
the Baroque altar and perhaps the church’s greatest art
piece, Pinturicchio’s
frescoes, depicting the life of Saint Bernardine of Siena from the
15th-century, all mingle within Ara Coeli.


The church’s interior is divided into three naves making up a
typical Christian basilica will columns from classical Roman ruins all
different from the next.
While the festive decor and cultural collection are impressive, the
church is most famous for the statue of baby Jesus (also known as the <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>Santo Bambino)
which is taken from its private chapel and onto a ceremonial throne
before being unveiled and transported to a <a
style=”font-style: italic;”>presepe
(Nativity crib); a spectacle only witnessed during Midnight Mass.

Covered in jewels, the baby Jesus remains in his crib for only one day
where children of Rome can pray or pay tribute and locals and visitors
can admire and kiss the statue before he returns to his private
sanctuary.The statue itself is said to have been carved out of wood
taken from an olive tree in the <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>Garden of Gethsemane
where Jesus and his disciples were said to have prayed the night before
Jesus’ crucifixion. Upon request, the statue can make house
calls throughout Rome where, according to legend, it can cure the

Although the original statue was stolen and replaced with a replica in
1994, the facsimile is venerated all the same keeping the tradition in
the Santa Maria in Ara Coeli alive. <span
style=”font-style: italic;”>– Michael Lowe

Photo by Allie_Caulfield,