If you want to spend your Christmas vacation in a truly extraordinary place, head to the Vatican. All of Italy is a fairy tale in itself during the winter, but it’s in the Vatican on the eve of the main Christian holiday when real miracles happen. Visiting the tiny state is always worthwhile, striking in its architecture year-round, but the city looks especially mesmerizing in its holiday decorations. The Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square captivates residents and visitors every year with its beauty. And the Christmas Mass in the Vatican is truly an incredible spectacle. All in all, a trip to Rome in December is a great idea. We’ll tell you more about it all.
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Christmas tree in the square at the Vatican
The solemn installation of a Christmas tree in the town square isn’t an old tradition, but now no Christmas in the Vatican goes without. It began in 1982, when Pope John Paul II was presented an evergreen tree for the feast by a Polish farmer. To this day, Europeans are honored to give the Pope a fir tree, which now is set up and decorated in St. Peter’s Square. Every year, representatives of one of the European countries give the Pope a symbol of the holiday.
In 2018, a luxurious pine beauty 23 meters high and weighing 4.5 tons was erected in the square. It came from the forests of Pordenone in the north of Italy. Every year a tree is brought to the Vatican at the end of November, and from the first days of winter it’s festooned with decorations, delighting citizens and tourists until mid-January. If you decide to visit the Vatican during your winter vacation, be sure to go admire it.
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Decorations in St. Peter’s Square
The toys on the Vatican’s main Christmas tree deserve special attention. They are traditionally made by children undergoing treatment in Italian cancer hospitals. The shining garland is made entirely of LED lights that consume minimal energy. Several new trees are planted in place of one felled spruce in the region where the holiday tree comes from. And the wood left over from the holiday is not thrown away, but goes to charity.
The erection of the manger scene in St. Peter’s Square is an even older tradition. Every year at Christmas in Vatican the bible scene of Jesus’ birth is recreated. Even at the time of Popes Pius XII and Giovanni XXIII, large wooden figures were erected in Val Gardena. Pope Paolo VI was the first to allow them to be erected in the square as well. Every year these figures change. In 2018, for example, all of the sculptures were made of sand. Giving the nativity scene as a gift to the Vatican is no less an honor than giving the Christmas tree.
Christmas Mass at the Vatican
Many people come to Rome for the purpose of getting close to important religious sites, but in this case it doesn’t matter how religious you are. There are spectacles that can bring people around the world together because of the ineffable atmosphere. You can watch the Pope on one of the screens set up in the square, but attending Mass in person is an entirely different experience. To see it for yourself and experience the sacrament in person, you need to get your tickets in advance.
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Mass is held in St. Peter’s Basilica. The place itself is imbued with an atmosphere of spirituality combined with the striking beauty of ancient Roman architecture. The service itself is more spectacular than you might expect.
If you have not been to the Vatican before, it is better to see this building on your own or as part of a guided tour. During the Christmas season, the flow of people who want to see the cathedral increases. We recommend getting tickets in advance here, so you can avoid standing in queues.
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How to get tickets for Christmas at the Vatican
Tickets for Christmas Mass at the Vatican are free, but very much in demand. If you are planning to attend Mass, you need to be concerned about this issue beforehand. Tickets are not available until November, but the earlier you book them, the better. Requests can be submitted until December 1. If you reserve tickets for a smaller group, you have a better chance of getting them. So a family of 2-6 people will be more likely to get to the Vatican’s Christmas Mass than a group of a dozen tourists.
To book a ticket for Christmas Mass, you need to fill out a special form, which you can download from the official Vatican website, and then you’ll need to send it by fax or postal mail. You will then receive a rather unusual souvenir in response: a confirmation letter that the Vatican is considering your request. You will also be given a number. Note that this is not yet a ticket confirmation. In order to receive the ticket itself, you must visit the Prefettura Vaticana (knock on the bronze gate) in person 3-5 days before Mass. Only then will you have the opportunity to enter the basilica.
In addition to tickets for mass, you need to take care of booking a hotel. All the comfortable and inexpensive rooms will sell out quickly. And if you are traveling by car, then consider parking. If it is not available at the hotel, please book in advance here.
How to see the Pope at Christmas without a ticket
If you couldn’t achieve the Mass, don’t worry, you still have the opportunity to see the Pope, albeit from a distance, and experience the atmosphere of the holiday. At midnight on December 25, he addresses the people in the square from the balcony of St. Peter’s Cathedral, giving a speech and a short prayer. The entire festive Mass is broadcast on a large screen in the square, where many people gather. On December 26, the Pope also blesses people. You don’t need tickets to attend these events.
Besides the feast days, every Wednesday the pontiff addresses the people from his balcony with a speech on a certain topic. This is called the General Audience, and you will need free tickets to attend the event, which you can also order through the official website.
How the museums work on Christmas in the Vatican
If you are going to spend more than one day in the Vatican, it will be possible to visit both the festive Mass and the local attractions. The city’s museum hours are different from the rest of Rome. At Christmas you can’t visit the Sistine Chapel and other famous architectural and historical monuments. The local museums have several days off during the winter: December 25 and 26 and January 1, 5, 6.
Note that the flow of tourists increases during the holidays in Rome, so it is better to think about tickets in advance. Even on normal days, the queue at the Vatican Museums stretches for a few hours. In order not to stand in the queue just to get to the ticket office, book tickets here.
On the last Sunday of the month, you can visit the Vatican Museums for free from 9:00 to 14:00 (admission is possible until 12:00).
On weekdays, the museums work as usual: it is acceptable to visit them from 9:00 to 18:00, but the sale of admission tickets stops at 16:00.
If the heart of Christian culture is of great interest to you, Christmas at the Vatican promises to be memorable. Book your Mass tickets in advance or plan to enjoy the spectacle on one of the screens in St. Peter’s Square decorated for the holiday. If this is your first trip, be sure to read our article with tips for visiting the Vatican. In general, try to take time for leisurely walks through the city’s streets, museums and basilicas. You might want to delve even deeper into this enchanting atmosphere and come back to the Vatican again – there’s certainly enough to see for multiple trips.