Christmas at the Vatican

November 05 2014 | by

IN MANY countries Christmas seems to start a soon as the first autumnal chill is in the air, with decorations adorning shop windows, festive food recipes in every magazine and constant reminders of how few shopping days are left until December 25. Here in Italy, on the whole, the celebrations get underway at a much slower pace, with the commercial frenzy rarely taking off much before the first Sunday of Advent – this year coinciding with the feast of St. Andrew on November 30. Alongside the liturgical season of waiting and preparing our hearts and homes for the coming of the Christ Child, the shopping also begins in earnest then, as the streets, storefronts and piazzas are decked out with twinkling lights, brightly coloured Christmas trees and traditional nativity scenes.

December 8, the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, is a big Italian holiday and a particularly important date on the Roman calendar, as thousands of local residents and tourists head for the central Spanish Steps, in the city’s smartest shopping district, to watch the Pope lay a wreath at the foot of a tall column with a statue honouring the Blessed Virgin. After a short prayer service, Pope Francis is expected to spend time, as he did last year, greeting some of the many well-wishers packed into the square, before being driven the short distance back across the River Tiber to his home in the Vatican.


Giant fir tree


By this time, St. Peter’s Square is also a hive of activity as teams of workers erect scaffolding for a giant Christmas tree and a larger than life-sized nativity scene which dominates most of Michelangelo’s impressive piazza between the curved marble colonnades. The tradition of the evergreen tree as a Christmas symbol originated in northern Europe and was relatively little known here in Italy until quite recently. It was the Polish Pope, now Saint John Paul II, who introduced it into the Vatican in 1982, and each year since then a giant tree, usually from an eco-friendly sustainable forest somewhere in Italy or in various other European countries, has been donated to the Pope. This year the huge, decorated fir tree will be one of the tallest ever seen in the square, rising to around 33 metres and donated by the southern Italian region of Calabria. A joyful inauguration ceremony usually takes place around the second Friday in December, with Vatican officials, regional authorities and often musical bands playing as the Christmas lights are switched on.


Nativity scene


The nativity or crib scene, on the other hand, has its origins here in Italy, with St. Francis of Assisi believed to have created the first re-enactment of Christ’s birth in a cave near the hill town of Greccio around the year 1223. The Pope of that period, Honorius III, gave his blessing to this symbol of popular devotion, and the idea spread fast throughout the Christian world. Together with St. Francis’ use of local townsfolk in a ‘living’ nativity scene, artisans also began crafting simple statues and more ornate figurines to tell the story of Mary, Joseph and the baby born in a stable in Bethlehem. Made of all kinds of different materials, from ceramics, wax, wood, marble or ivory to precious metals, these figures were often depicted in elaborate landscape settings, and increasingly included colourful characters from everyday village life as well. This popular art form reached its apex in Naples from the 16th century onwards, as local craftsmen became famed for their nativity figures that are still sold in many countries around the world. In Italy today, intricate crib scenes can be found, not only in churches, squares and public buildings like the central Termini train station in Rome, but also in simple homes where the scenery changes and new characters, animals or mechanical features are added with each passing year. Rome’s Piazza Navona has a popular Christmas market selling all the crib figures as well as materials such as starry sky paper and bags of sand, stones, moss or wood to create the backdrop for homemade nativity scenes. A museum in Piazza del Popolo hosts an exhibition each year featuring more than a hundred original crib scenes made from the most unlikely materials, including pasta shapes, matchsticks or even the inside of old TV sets.


Terracotta figurines


The Nativity in St. Peter’s Square is usually constructed under thick canvas covers by architects and painters, gardeners and electricians, remaining a well-kept secret until its unveiling by the Pope on Christmas Eve. Recent editions have included elaborate scenes from the Italian Alps, a Filipino fishing village, a portrayal of Mary and Joseph’s house in Nazareth and, last year, a focus on the message of humility contained in the words of both Saint Francis and the first Pope to name himself after the saint from Assisi.

This year officials in the northern city of Verona have already revealed that they will be providing the set and the life-size figures, which were originally made for a performance of the opera The Elixir of Love by the popular 19th century Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti. The nativity scene was created by well-known writer, music critic and set designer Francisco Canessa for a performance of the two-act opera in Verona’s famous Roman amphitheatre, the Arena, which remains an icon of the city and a favourite location for summer opera and other kinds of musical performances. The scene, which will be assembled in the square during the first three weeks of December, will feature more than twenty terracotta figures showing the Holy Family, the shepherds and the Wise Men who journey to Bethlehem following the new star that they saw rising in the East.


Midnight Mass


On the 3rd Sunday of Advent (also known as Gaudete Sunday) thousands of Italian children flock into St. Peter’s Square for the Pope’s Angelus address, after which he blesses all the Baby Jesus figurines which they bring with them and which will then be placed in the mangers of their nativity scenes on Christmas Eve. It was Paul VI who started this lovely tradition back in 1968, but it is still a popular part of the preparations for Christmas for many young and older Italians today.

On Christmas Eve Pope Francis will celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity, or Midnight Mass, in St. Peter’s Basilica, usually beginning around 9.30pm. While a few lucky people, who apply for tickets months in advance, are able to get seats inside the Basilica, many thousands more follow the ceremony from big screens set up in the square outside. If you’re not in Rome, you can listen to it or watch it live on Vatican Radio’s website, Facebook page or YouTube Channel, or via some of the Catholic radio and TV stations which carry the event, with commentary in half a dozen different languages.

On Christmas morning, the Pope will come out onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica from where he’ll give his traditional ‘Urbi et Orbi’ address and blessing, to the city of Rome and to the world. Tens of thousands of people are expected to fill the square and surrounding roads, with millions more tuning in around the world to hear him pray for an end to violence and conflict as we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace.


A few quiet days


Traditionally, the Pope has then enjoyed a quiet few days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when he celebrates first Vespers and the Te Deum in St. Peter’s Basilica, giving thanks for all the blessings of the past year. On January 1 he presides at the morning Mass in the Basilica, marking the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, as well as the Church’s annual World Day of Peace, another tradition begun by Pope Paul VI.


Epiphany Mass


On the feast of the Epiphany, another important popular celebration for children here in Italy, the Pope celebrates Mass in the Basilica in the morning. Last year the Holy Father followed that celebration with a visit to a Roman parish, where he was treated to a nativity pageant by some of the local school children, and was captured by a photographer carrying a young lamb across his shoulders. There are also lots of Epiphany processions that take place in many different parishes and central areas of Rome, including one in the wide avenue leading up to St. Peter’s Square, featuring hundreds of people in period costumes and traditional instruments, bringing symbolic gifts from different regions of the country.


Our Lord’s Baptism


While Twelfth Night marks the close of the Christmas festivities for people in many English speaking countries, the liturgical season of Christmas continues with the feast of Our Lord’s Baptism the following Sunday, when the Pope traditionally baptises a large group of babies in the Sistine Chapel. As he welcomed the new-borns into the Church for the first time last January, Pope Francis told their parents not to worry about the noise of crying, which he called “the most beautiful choir of all.” He also urged the mothers not to be intimidated by the solemn surroundings of Michelangelo’s famous frescos, and to breastfeed the babies if they were hungry “because they are the most important people here.”


Our Lord’s Presentation


In previous centuries, of course, the 40 day season of Christmastide carried on through January until the Feast of Our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple or Candle-mass, the day that Mary entered the Temple with the Child Jesus, when her days of purification after giving birth were fulfilled, according to the Jewish law. In keeping with that ancient tradition, it’s only then that the nativity scenes and Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square will be taken down here in the Vatican, and safely packed away until this same time next year.

Updated on October 06 2016