A Roman Christmas

This article originally appeared the November 2008 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.

When I pictured myself spending Christmas in Rome, many thoughts went through my head: the crowds at St. Peter’s for Midnight Mass, the chance to see the many churches with their presepi (Nativity scenes), and perhaps some of my favorite monuments glimmering under holiday lights. What I never expected was my first encounter with the festive Christmas market in Piazza Navona. As I walked through Campo dei Fiori towards the piazza on that cold, dark night, I emerged into a colorful holiday wonderland. It was an incredible sight, with stands covered in thousands of lights offering Christmas candy and small games and toys such as ratty-looking stuffed reindeer being sold by even rattier looking Santas! The scene brought back that almost child-like sense of wonder that I used to feel around the holidays.

After the death of our mother the previous December, my sister and I realized that since neither of us had our own family, we would need to do something completely different for the holidays in 2003. Our first Roman Christmas was unusually cold and rainy (the Italian press called it Natale Polare or “Polar Christmas”). But we loved it and especially loved it enough for us (and any friends we could persuade to join us) to spend four of the next five Christmases here in the Eternal City. Since 2008 I’m living here full-time, we will celebrate the holidays in my very own Roman home.

For Italians, Christmas represents family…and food. And, while the shops are full of wonderful gifts, I don’t feel the emphasis on the commercial aspect of Christmas that is so prevalent in the United States. The streets and shops of Rome are crowded on Christmas Eve – but the shoppers’ arms aren’t full of shopping bags with the latest clothes or toys, they are loaded down with the foods of the season – fresh fish as well as sweets like panettone, pandoro and torrone.

And the decorations don’t go up very early (this includes my favorite item of the last few years, the “hanging Santa”)…usually only a week or so before Christmas because they stay up until the Epiphany on January 6th.

One of the joys of shopping in Italy is the great attention the shopkeepers pay to each purchase and especially at Christmas. One of my favorite memories that first Christmas in Rome will remain the ricotta tart I bought from the pasticceria in the neighborhood. My tart was wrapped in lovely green paper and tied with a light green ribbon. I wouldn’t let the lady put it in a bag because I was so proud of it and I carried it through the streets like I had won a prize.

La Vigilia

The traditional Christmas Eve dinner is a grand meal, generally with seven fish courses. While developing my own traditions, I have had a great guide to the Roman ways in my friend Raffaella, who is a native Roman. She says the meal is referred to as di magro (magro means “thin”) which means that, in the Christian tradition, you don’t eat meat as a form of respect and penitence and to purify the body from all the excesses of the year. The Roman twist on the traditional Christmas Eve meal is the addition of many fried antipasti like mozzarella and artichokes. According to my guide, Christmas Eve is a bigger occasion than Christmas Day, with Roman families eating together at home, before opening some presents delivered by Santa Claus and attending mass at midnight.

While my sister and I try to eat at least some fish at our traditional Christmas Eve dinner at a wonderful restaurant in Trastevere called L’Archetto (Via G. Mamelli, 23; 39-06-5815275; closed Sunday). I met Alessandra, the owner of the restaurant, through friends when I first started coming to Rome and it has long been my place to go for any special events.  So that first year, not really knowing too many of the local traditions, we decided that we would start our holiday celebration there.  Alessandra tells us to trust her when she says “close your menu,” as she did during a recent Christmas Eve dinner that was capped off with a slice from a giant panettone (the traditional cake originated in Milan and served throughout the holidays; it’s a bit like our fruit cake, only much better). [Note: Alessandra is not sure if she will be opening the restaurant this Christmas, so be sure to check with her.]

I love so many things about Italy but occasionally I do run into something that I just can’t understand.  On Christmas Eve, this involves the capitone, an ugly eel that is popular in both Rome and Naples. While I refuse to eat them, I do like looking at them – and I have the opportunity since my local fishmonger puts a box of them (still alive) on the sidewalk that afternoon.

While many people come to Rome at Christmas to go to Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s in the Vatican (either getting the rare tickets that allow you inside the basilica or standing outside to watch the mass on a big screen in the piazza), but several hours in a large crowd of people is not my idea of a good time so I have never tried it. Instead, we begin our tradition of “church-hopping,” around 11:30 p.m.

Our goal is to visit as many churches as we can on Christmas Eve.  This tradition of dropping in on a number of services started the first year when decided to go to the Pantheon because we thought that would be a close second to St. Peter’s.  That year there was a small crowd (probably due to the cold both outside and inside the magnificent structure) so we didn’t stay very long, but decided to walk back home and on the way, started dropping into the churches we passed. I think our record for church visits is 11 in one night. But in the last few years, we have spent more time at two of our favorites, St. Ivo all’Sapienza and Santa Maria in Trastevere. St. Ivo is a lovely small church near Piazza Navona and is one of the masterpieces of Francesco Borromini. It is not always open, so Christmas Eve is a good time to see it.  Santa Maria in Trastevere has a large, lively service that is sometimes aired on Italian television. While I have not been back to the Pantheon since that first year, we may try it again this year because I have been told the service now includes Gregorian chants. It has also become harder to get a seat for the service so I plan to arrive around 10 p.m. to secure a place.

Christmas Day

Christmas itself begins with a lovely peacefulness in the city, except in my kitchen (this year in my own apartment, in previous years at rental places) as we begin our dinner preparations.  It is a quiet day for most Roman families, with a big family lunch; again, the emphasis this day is more on food than gifts.  Many families eat turkey or cappone (rooster which was castrated at about four months old and then fattened). While in the north of Italy, boiled meat with green sauce made of garlic and parsley is the standard, most families across Italy probably eat tortellini or cappelletti cooked in broth.

The shopping for food and decorations has always been part of the adventure.  This year I will be able to put a tree up quite early, hopefully a couple of weeks before Christmas.  I have found that one of the best ways to improve my language skills is to make memorable mistakes…and I have done that many, many times!  For example, one of my favorites is the year I set out to buy a Christmas tree, an albero di Natale but after a few glasses of wine, ended up asking for an albergo di Natale, which meant I was trying to buy a Christmas hotel!

Like other Romans, I do most of my shopping on the 24th so that everything is as fresh as possible.  The first year, we decided we wanted to create a menu that would remind us a bit of Christmas in the United States, but not exactly replicate it. We began with lentil soup (which is also eaten for good luck on New Year’s Eve), followed by a rotolo, which is a roll of turkey stuffed with any number of things – our favorite is plums and apples. We also prepared sautéed spinach and, to satisfy our American appetites, mashed potatoes. In the great Italian tradition, our dinner lasted more than four hours, and we enjoyed the fact that nobody was rushing off to watch a football game or looking for more presents to open.

After dinner, Roman families play games such as tombola, which is similar to Bingo and sette e mezzo, a version of Blackjack.  Both are often played for money and can provide an evening of high competition and laughter.  I have only played tombola once (I lost the whole night) but this year have bought my own set and look forward to playing it again.

If we want a bit of exercise and fresh air either before or after the games, we might take a walk to St. Peter’s after Christmas dinner to see the Nativity. (We’ll miss the crowds who were there early in the day for the Pope’s appearance at his window.) Last year, the Vatican made a fairly dramatic change in the scene’s traditional composition, setting it in Joseph’s house, with his near-by carpenters’ workshop and a busy inn, rather than a straw-lined stable. Because the new design reflects a passage from the book of Matthew rather than the usual story from Luke, the new scene stirred up quite a bit of controversy.

Of course, St. Peter’s is not the only church with a Nativity.  That first Christmas, a friend told me I had to go into as many churches as possible (“crib crawling”) because they each have their own distinct Nativity scene. Many are very elaborate, with shooting stars and music; others are very simple.  This became my quest in the week before Christmas that first year, and I wish I had kept count of the number of churches I entered. From the start, I noticed that there was no Baby Jesus in the manger and I couldn’t understand why.  It took me a lot longer than I should admit to realize that the manger was empty because he hadn’t arrived yet and would be placed into the manger on Christmas Eve.

Possibly because this popular symbol of Christmas is rooted in early Italian history, the Nativity is taken very seriously in Italy and I imagine each Italian home has at least one. Supposedly St. Francis of Assisi asked the artist Giovanni Vellita to create the first Nativity scene in the village of Greccio in 1224. Raffaella tells me that in her mother’s house today they still today move the Wise Men a bit closer to the manger every day and on Christmas Eve, the lights are dimmed and the entire family follows as the youngest person there has the honor of placing the Baby Jesus in the manger. She also has told me a story about her uncle in Naples who was a collected Nativity scenes.  He kept one with almost life-size (or so it seemed to her as a child) figures in a room year round, but only opened it for viewing during the holidays.

La Festa di San Stefano

The day after Christmas, La Festa di San Stefano, marks the announcement of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the Three Wise Men. It is a national holiday in Italy and my first year here it seemed that more things were closed on this day than on Christmas Day but I have since noticed that the city does seem to slowly come back to life that day.

There are plenty of things to do on the 26th, including a visit to the Borghese Gallery (reservations necessary) or another of the larger museums (the Vatican Museums are closed that day). Another fantastic Roman museum open that day and worth visiting is the Galleria Doria Pamphilj with its large collection of 17th century masterpieces and important Renaissance pieces). It is also a day to mingle with the crowds of families walking around Rome and stopping by the holiday market in Piazza Navona.

The long holiday season finally winds down after New Year’s when it culminates on the Epiphany with a visit from La Befana. In Rome, in particular, this is still a very big day, when La Befana delivers presents to the children – candy for the good children and pieces of “coal” (actually black sugar candy) to those who have been bad.  The legend of La Befana recounts that the wise men had stopped at her home asking for directions to the manger where the Christ child had been born.  La Befana didn’t know who they were looking for and, being suspicious, declined to accompany them when they offered to let her join them. After they left, she reconsidered and decided to join them, but lost her way.  The story tells how she stopped every child she met and gave them treats in the possibility that one of them was the baby the men had described.  Every year she continues her search for the Christ child she missed.

Fortunately, my search for the best place to spend Christmas is over.  Rome is my home for the holidays. I think spending Christmas here has given me back something that I had lost as I grew up…an understanding that the season is not important so much for the gifts that are exchanged (and maybe later returned!) but for the wonderful times (accented by great food) spent with family and friends.

— Frances Kidd

Frances Kidd wrote about the secrets of the Sistine Chapel and tours of the Roman Ghetto in the May 2008 issue of Dream of Italy.