Rome’s Christmas celebrations focus on St Peter’s Basilica, where a twinkling Christmas tree and life-size nativity scene welcome visitors in the centre of St Peter’s Square. The basilica is perfumed with the scent of incense on Christmas Eve as worshippers gather to watch the Pope preside over midnight Mass. Next day, join pilgrims from around the world filling St Peter’s Square to hear the Pope give his Christmas Day message.
With its cafés, bars and party atmosphere, Piazza Navona attracts crowds all year round, but at Christmas it’s one of Rome’s liveliest locations. Stalls fill the former Roman stadium, loaded with toys, Christmas tree decorations and seasonal red poinsettias, and a carousel lights up the square. Parents snack on seasonal fare like roast chestnuts, nougat and gingerbread, while children queue to visit Santa in his grotto.
It rarely snows in Rome, and even in winter you’re likely to see some crisp sunny days. Wrap up with a scarf and gloves, and bring your sunglasses to go ice-skating on the rink outside Castel Sant’Angelo. From here, a walk in the winter sunshine takes you along a maze of cobbled backstreets to Santa Maria in Trastevere, with its glittering 12th-century mosaics.
The beautifully crafted nativity scenes you see around Rome at Christmastime are known as presepi, an art form that reached its height in the 16th century. The Christmas cribs appear in churches all over Rome, each detailed scene watched over by angels, lit up with fairy lights and complete with straw, lambs and asses. If you’d like to see more, visit the 100 Presepi Exhibition at the Sala del Bramante on Piazza del Popolo, with its collection of nativity scenes brought together from across Italy.
Romans celebrate Christmas with a festive dinner on Christmas Eve, and fish rather than turkey is the menu’s hero. Book a table at Il Pagliaccio to make merry at Christmas, and choose from the seasonal tasting menu or à la carte. You’ll find fish and seafood in dishes across the menu, served with spaghetti, ravioli and, as the Christmas specialty, capitone – baked, fried, stewed or roasted eel. Via dei Banchi Vecchi 129A. Il Pagliaccio Website (www.ristoranteilpagliaccio.it)
Capodanno, or New Year’s Eve, is a special highlight on winter holidays in Rome. Hotels and restaurants host fixed- price dinners, with spiced pork sausage the traditional speciality and sparkling prosecco the celebratory drink. Festive crowds make their way to Piazza del Popolo, where locals release firecrackers and the midnight sky lights up with a fireworks display choreographed to a musical soundtrack.
In February you can almost feel a hint of spring in the air when Carnevale comes to a climax in Rome. Buy special sugar-dusted pastries from stalls across Rome, and admire revellers in colourful costumes and masks. The Piazza Navona fair stays open all night on the weekend before Ash Wednesday, when a traditional character called Befana distributes sweets and presents to children.
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