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Rome for the Holidays

The weather is sunny and mild, and there's lots of can't-miss Christmas and New Year's festivities, midnight masses, and more.

Italians browse Rome's boutiques for Christmas gifts (Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

The holiday season in Rome is unlike any other time in the Eternal City--and not just because of the Vatican's Christmas celebrations. Roman weather in late December is so mild and sunny that it is common for people to enjoy lunch outdoors at piazza cafés. And the Romans--most of whom are not around during the height of the summer tourist season--reclaim their city in the winter, giving visitors a glimpse of everyday life.

Rome takes on a festive feel and an air of debauchery recalling Saturnalia, the ancient pagan holiday still celebrated in some circles on December 17. Like some modern rituals, Saturnalia was marked by gift-giving and a relaxation of the rules. Even some of Rome's present holiday customs--from the Christmas fair at Piazza Navona to the practice of burning the old calendar to mark the New Year--bear the hallmarks of Rome's enduring pagan past.

Five Can't-Miss Holiday Sights

Piazza Navona Christmas Market
In any other city, it would be sacrilegious to host such a kitschy fair in such an important square, but it wouldn't be Christmas in Rome without this annual event, which centers around la Befana, the Christmas witch who, until recently, was more popular than Santa Claus. The square, dominated by three famous fountains, is lined with stands selling everything from hot doughnuts (ciambelle) and cotton candy to Nativity scene figurines and Christmas tree decorations. But you're not here to buy stocking stuffers or tree trimmings. The real joy of this Christmas spectacle is scoping out the fascinating street performers and the impeccably dressed Romans out for a stroll (passeggiata). Piazza Navona, through January 6, 2008, 011-39/06-8205-9127, romaturismo.it, free.

Zampognari and pifferai (Bagpipers and flutists)
From early December through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, traditional bagpipers (zampognari) and flutists (pifferai) descend on Rome from the regions of Abruzzo and Calabria to play traditional Christmas music for the masses. You'll find the musicians, recognizable by their leather-laced shoes and sheepskin attire, wandering around Rome's historical center, especially near Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and at the gates of St. Peter's Square. Don't confuse these genuine traditionalists, who play for free, with the countless buskers and impostor minstrels who also wander the city center playing for spare change--including the Blue Santas, whose jazz renditions of Christmas greats are actually worthy of a few euro cents. Piazza Navona, Piazza di Spagna, Piazza San Pietro, free.

Natale all'Auditorium (Christmas at the Auditorium)
Rome's newest entertainment venue, the Parco della Musica, designed by Renzo Piano, is getting in the holiday spirit with lots of fake snow and a festive lineup including dance recitals, chamber music concerts, and child-friendly puppet shows (tickets range from €2 to €20 ($3 to $38) depending on show). Add to that a 2,000-square foot ice-skating rink (€8 ($12) including skate rental, through Feb. 3, 2008) and a hands-on "Enchanted Forest" play area for the young nonskaters. Food and drink available, but the venue is closed Dec. 24 and 25. Auditorium Parco della Musica, Viale Pietro de Coubertin, through January 5, 2008, 011-39/06-8024-1281, full program at auditorium.com.


100 Presepi
The 100 Presepi exhibition (presepi means Nativity scene) has been a mainstay on any Roman Christmas itinerary for the past 31 years. Now the count is up to 160. A month before the exhibition opens, craftsmen painstakingly set up the expansive Nativity displays, which feature everything from running water and twinkling fires to hand-carved figurines and flying angels. The most famous of the traditional Neapolitan Nativity scenes--some dating to the 17th century--are on display, and this year the organizers have also invited modern artisans who use nontraditional materials such as plastics and other synthetics to go far beyond the usual renditions of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Sale del Bramante, Via Gabriele D'Annunzio (Piazza del Popolo), 011-39/06-8535-7191, presepi.it, through January 6, 2008, 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, 4.50 ($6.50) Mon.-Fri., 5 ($7.20) Sat.-Sun.

Vatican Service at St. Peter's Square
While it's impossible to get a front-row seat unless you're a cardinal or high ranking official within the Holy See, attending either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day mass in this bastion of Catholicism is inarguably a powerful experience. It's not too late to reserve free tickets over the phone. They can be picked up at the bronze doors in St. Peter's Square on the 23rd, but don't delay if you hope to attend. 011-39/06-6988-3273, vatican.va

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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