Rome can be a very lonely city when your nearest family member is 13,000 kilometers away. Christmas is approaching. Imagine how lonely I could feel living in a city of 4 million people, all family oriented and raised in the capital of Christendom. I have no family ties. I have no religious ties. Yet something about Christmas time here makes me feel more alive. It isn’t because this is Rome’s slowest month for tourism and I love the emptier streets and seats on public transportation. I can’t remember the last time I saw a tourist walk bewildered onto a bus with a map in his hand.
It’s because Rome has a much subtler approach to Christmas than back home in the United States. Visiting Rome at Christmas time has meaning. It goes beyond the dollars people make and the gifts people receive. It goes back to Christmas’ roots, where the birth of Jesus Christ is celebrated and not the birth of iPhone 7.
It’s a remarkable focus considering Italy and the modern church. Outsiders don’t know this, but Romans are not terribly religious. As a whole, neither are Italians. The Catholic Church’s grasp on its world is much tighter in places like Brazil and the Philippines than its own neighborhood around the Vatican. In the most recent survey, according to World Values Surveys, only 31 percent of all Italians go to church regularly. Italians fought the church for faster divorce and got it in 1987. Abortion became legal in 1978. You can buy condoms in every pharmacy in the country. They don’t even put them in a brown paper bag.
Yet in December, Christmas is treated like a religious holiday and not a commercial one. I never had problems with commercializing Christmas. I love to give. In my family, which over the past 40 years only gathered during Christmas, we had so many presents under the tree you couldn’t get in the living room. We’d take a break halfway through to eat coffee cake left over from breakfast three hours before. By the time the last present opened, the sun was starting to set.
However, I became jaded in America over hearing “Jingle Bells” while shopping for the usual Cornish game hen I made myself every Thanksgiving. I tired of watching neighbors one-upping each other with Christmas lights that made Caesars Palace look like the Bates Motel.
In Rome, the only way I knew Christmas approached was the simply decorated Christmas tree in front of my neighborhood church, Chiesa di Santa Maria Liberatrice. Saturday night, however, I took a tour of Christmas lights in what I believe is the most beautiful city in the world. Guess what, folks. At Christmas, Rome is even prettier.
On a crisp but pleasant night in the high 40s, I started at the Spanish Steps. It is closed off for renovation but the Palazzo Valentini in nearby Piazza Mignanelli is doing a nice job filling in. The palace, built in 1873, is covered in white Christmas lights, making the yellow building look even softer. With the two-story high Christmas tree in front, the piazza is the perfect spot to hold hands with a loved one.
Running perpendicular to the piazza is Via dei Condotti, Rome’s Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive and Avenue Montaigne. Name an Italian clothes store you can’t afford and it’s on Condotti. Prada. Gucci. Bulgari. They’re all there, as well as most other name brands from around the world. Sets of white lights spanned, like little bridges, the narrow pedestrian street to the end four blocks away. Dior filled its display window with purple, green and yellow Christmas balls. Moncler, the French boutique clothes store, sported a small ski display. In front of Fendi, the Italian luxury fashion house, is a tree entirely decorated with ornaments resembling red, green and yellow purses.
On the way down Condotti, I passed Bangladeshis huddled against the cold selling roasted chestnuts which filled the air with that smoky aroma. I turned down Via del Corso, one of the busiest streets in Rome but half of it is closed to traffic. The entire length of the street reaching all the way to the giant white monument honoring Italian unification, Vittoriano, is lined with big white Christmas balls. It wasn’t ostentatious. It wasn’t colorful. It was just simple and bright.
The lights basked a nice glow on the Bulgarian trio playing “Jingle Bells” and other Christmas carols on their bass and guitars. Outside the Galleria Alberto Sordi stood a replica of a giant Christmas present made of red and yellow Christmas lights.
At the end of the street, the gargantuan Vittoriano is louder than anything in Rome. In front of it, standing in the middle of the massive piazza like the Little Drummer Boy before Jesus is a Christmas tree decorated entirely in white lights with a star atop it. It’s beautiful in its simplicity.
A bus ride across the river, St. Peter’s is already the most beautiful church in the world. Perpetually back lit at night and lined with a semicircle of Bernini sculptures and fountains, St. Peter’s is a must stop for any night stroll in Rome. Over Christmas, it follows the long-honored Italian tradition of building a nativity scene or presepe in Italian. In the middle of the piazza, in front of the 80-foot obelisk placed there by Caligula in the 1st century A.D., is a two-story dwelling from old Bethlehem, complete with people and animals going about their day. The Vatican doesn’t awe me. But its art does.
The next night I got into the Christmas spirit a little more. I attended a classical Christmas concert. I’m not into music but when an Italian choir plays Christmas carols with classical music, I must listen. It was at the beautifully underrated Parrocchia di Santa Maria in Via, just off Via del Corso. Built in the 15th century, it is lined with chandeliers. Tall candles lit up the nave behind the elegantly dressed chorus. I joined a standing-room only crowd as they played Handel and Bach and Mozart. But along the way, we heard, “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Buon natale, readers. The big city of Rome is smiling bright.