I always go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve when I'm in Rome. Each year we select a different church.
One year my friend Giorgio and I decided to attend mass at the church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. We arrived early and took advantage of the bright moon and lovely December night to wander around this especially beautiful Roman neighborhood. It was deserted.
As we strolled through the orange gardens that surround the church, toward the terrace that overlooks the entire city, we were surprised by total silence. All of Rome was having Christmas dinner! The usual omnipresent hum of cars was gone and there was absolutely no sound on the air. We looked out over the city and it appeared to be basking in serenity.
Eventually, a single church bell tolled. For what seemed like a long long time, the echo continued to ring out across the rooftops to us. Then, from different corners of the city, other church bells began to chime. There were no other sounds. Each bell added its own particular tone to the symphony. It was a magical moment.
As midnight approached, the city came to life again. People began to leave their homes and travel to mass. The distant buzz of cars returned with a crescendo. Folks started to show up at Santa Sabina, first a few at a time and then many more, summoned by the churches' midnight bells.
That's the thing about the Romans, you see. They are never early, not even for midnight mass.
A special memory I have of many trips to Italy involves the celebration of New Year's Eve in Rome. Because my daughter was living there, we were invited to the large home of friends of hers in the center of downtown Rome. There was a very formal air, with the ladies elegantly gowned and the very long dining table sparkling in candlelight and flowers. Classical music filled the rooms, giving the feeling that we were on an Italian movie set.
The evening began with a dinner that lasted for hours and included countless courses. It was the perfect example of how Italians can make an extended and enjoyable ritual of consuming food and wine. Shortly before midnight the table was cleared and large soup tureens appeared. Little bundles of coins were set by each plate. Out of the tureens came lentils and, as all the bells of Rome rang in the New Year, we ate our beans and clutched our coins for good luck and prosperity.
A while later, we went out on the terrace to witness the streets as they filled with singing, dancing revelers. Car horns blared and church bells continued to peal. The celebration went on all night long in downtown Rome, spilling into all the side streets and alleys, surrounding the ancient churches and monuments. While we had lived in Manhattan for many years and celebrated December 31st in the noise and confusion of Times Square, there was something unique about this Roman Holiday, a mixture of Old World elegance, joie de vivre and cheerful superstition which remains vivid in my memory though it happened years ago.
I can never forget my very first Christmas in Rome, when friends and I decided to attend midnight mass at the church of Aracoeli. I find it almost impossible to describe how moving the event was. The pifferai's haunting bagpipes played unseen as we silently climbed up the steep, stark medieval staircase to the church, yet we were unprepared for the profound contrast we felt on leaving the cold night air and venturing into the warm, brightly candlelit church. The worshippers, all dressed in their very finest, were reverent, silent and expectant. When the messa cantata (sung mass) was over, excitement surged from person to person, as palpable as an electrical current. Suddenly, the Santo Bambino appeared and was carried around the church in procession. A warm family sort of pandemonium broke out as everyone jostled and nudged to get a better look or to edge a little closer. The lucky ones strained to touch the statue itself. Each of us shared our joyful Christmas emotion with the many happy strangers who surrounded us.
Rome in Christmas was everything we hoped and more. The weather was perfect, no rain, and Christmas Day -- after visiting the Pope at Saint Peter -- we had a delightful lunch at an OUTSIDE sidewalk table in Plz. Popolo.
Midnight Mass at S. Maria in Aracoeli was a wonder. It was a mild night and we arrived about 10 pm and spent almost an hour on the belvedere overlooking the ruins of the Forum. They were briliantly lit and under a full moon. We just developed our nightime photographs and they're marvelous.
At 11:15, we entered the church by the rear entrance. There were only a few people and we chose a pew about 10 rows from the alter. The church quickly filled and it was standing room only when the beautiful ceremony began with the unveiling of the Santo Bambino, everyone applaluding when it was revealed. We are not Catholic but felt very much a part of this warm and moving event. After taking in the spectacular panoramic view of Rome from the front porch of S. Maria -- The Vatican and many churches and monuments still brightly lit at 1:30 in the morning - we caught a cab without trouble to our hotel in the Campo Dei Fiori.
My concern before we left the U.S. was about the availability of restaurants during the holidays. It was no problem, many good restaurants were opened 24th - 26th, as were many cafes and bars. In fact, we were able to get an Averna & espresso at 2am in Campo Dei Fiori when the cab dropped us off after S. Maria.
Thanks again for all the help you gave us in planning this trip. As of now, my wife and I are planning to spend EVERY Christmas in Rome.