As one of the most important Christian holidays of the year, Christmas at the Vatican starts quite a few weeks before December 25th. Here are all the events and dates to look out for if you want to experience some of the Christmas celebrations for yourself.
Christmas Tree and Nativity
The winter holiday season officially kicks off at the Vatican with the unveiling of the enormous Christmas tree on St. Peter’s Square. This was a tradition started by Pope John Paul II back in 1982 and though the original tree came from Italy, now a different EU country donates a tree from their country each year. The tree is usually lit around the 8th of December and this year it will be lit on the 5th of December at 4:30 pm and will remain lit until the 12th of January 2020.
In addition to the tree, there is also always a nativity scene set up on the square as part of Christmas at the Vatican. Also known as a presepio (Italian) or crib, this scene depicts the birth of Jesus in the manger. Because the nativity and the tree are located outside, these can be visited and admired at any time of day or night. Of course, they are more impressive in the darkness when then are spectacularly lit for the night.
Vatican Christmas Concert
Every year, the Vatican hosts a Christmas known as the Concerto di Natale. Now in its 26th year, the concert features internationally renowned performers who take the stage to raise funds for a good cause. The concert takes place in mid-December at a major venue in Rome and tickets are usually released for sale in October. This year, it will be on December 14th and will be televised in case you can’t attend in person.
December 8th: The Feast of the Immaculate Conception
Having lived in Rome for a long time, nothing makes me feel more like Christmas is coming than when the Pope has his traditional visit to piazza Mignanelli on the 8th of December. This small piazza is located right by the Spanish Steps, and the Pope leaves Vatican City to come to this corner of Rome in order to visit the Monument of the Immaculate Conception to celebrate Mary’s conception of Christ free from original sin. Popes have been doing this since 1953, offering a bouquet of flowers to honor the statue of Mary and it is a great event. I have come down on quite a few occasions to see this happen and let’s just say it is like a presidential inauguration. The closest I got to the Pope was back in 2011 where I found myself less than 6 feet away from Pope Benedict XVI.
December 24th: Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve Mass, or midnight mass, takes place inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Don’t let the name fool you, midnight mass does not take place at midnight but actually at 9:15 pm. Up to 15,000 people attend this mass. It is possible for the public to attend but it is difficult to get tickets so plan to secure your spot as far in advance as possible. There is also a very old fashioned system to receive these tickets: by fax. The fax number you can use for your request is +390669885863.
If you can’t get tickets to the liturgical event inside St. Peter’s, this mass is televised for the world to see. If you are in Rome and want to experience as much of Christmas at the Vatican as possible, you can watch the mass live on St. Peter’s Square where there is a number of huge screens set up. An amazing atmosphere of Christmas spirit.
While this is a holy celebration, these masses haven’t come without drama throughout the years. In 2009, a woman attempted to run up to Pope Benedict but was quickly taken by security. However, the following year she jumped the barriers and grabbed Pope Benedict, knocking him to the ground. Luckily, he got back on his feet and gave mass as if nothing had happened. Here is a video of the shocking moment, in case you are interested:
December 25th: Christmas at the Vatican
On Christmas day the Pope will address the crowd on St Peter’s Square at noon (12 pm). This is also free to attend, but please note that St. Peter’s Basilica will be closed until the Pope is finished his address. Get there early and expect crowds, but the experience and the mood are fantastic.
Although the Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel are closed on Christmas Day and St. Stephens day (25th and 26th of December) it is worth knowing that St Peter’s Basilica is open outside of the time of the Christmas blessing. The period between 27 December and 5 January is one of the busiest times to visit the Vatican Museums. Be prepared for crowds.
January 6th: The Epiphany
Have you ever heard of the 12 Days of Christmas? That is a bit how Christmas at the Vatican goes – and it doesn’t really end on Christmas Day. In fact, the last day in the holiday calendar is 12 days later on January 6th. The Epiphany marks the day that the Three Wise Men visited Jesus and it was revealed that he was the son of God.
The Pope leads the angelus at noon (12 pm) on St. Peter’s Square, and this is free to attend.
Note that the Vatican Museums are closed on January 6th. Here is a full guide to the Vatican Museum hours, including holiday closures.
Photo by: Giuseppe Milo