At St. Peter's, a tree and a life-size crèche grace the piazza. In piazza Navona, a holiday fair.
All around the Eternal City, churches glowing with candles resound with Christmas music. Bakery windows tempt the most abstemious with cakes rich in figs and nuts.
Shepherds from the nearby mountains come down to play their pipes at street corners. “The dark night wakes; the glory breaks/And Christmas comes once more.”
Rome's connection with Christmas actually dates back to the year of Christ's birth, indirectly. We read in St. Luke's Gospel that “It came to pass, in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that a census should be made of all the inhabited world.” Which is to say that the decree went out from Rome.
And of course this is what caused Joseph to return with Mary to Bethlehem, David's city, because that was his ancestral home.
If you spend just a few days in Rome this time of year, the presence of the remarkable man who was emperor when Christ was born will make itself felt, even if you remain unaware of him.
Augustus’ birth name was Octavius, but he was given the name Caesar Augustus when his skill as both conqueror and statesman became evident, and he became the first Roman emperor. His reign brought peace to the empire during years of what was called the Augustan Peace. The people he knew live on in every schoolchild's history class and even in the movies — Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra.
But a dream of his showed him a far greater world than his empire encompassed.
Augustus often walked from his glorious palace (now in ruins) on the Palatine Hill above the Roman Forum to the most sacred place in that pagan world — the Capitoline Hill, where stood a temple to Jupiter. One day after he had consulted the Sibyl there to learn his future, the Sibyl told him, Ecce ara primogenito Dei, or “Behold the altar of God's first-born son.”
Then the heavens opened and Augustus saw a virgin and child in the sky, which was taken to be a foretelling of Jesus’ birth. Augustus, though he knew nothing of the Christ Child, is said to have erected an altar on the Capitoline Hill.
Today the Franciscan church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (at the Altar of Heaven) is named for that vision. Inside that church, a mosaic at an altar depicts that mystical moment.
That same church houses a curious statue of a baby, encrusted with jewels, that is said to cure all sorts of maladies.
At Christmas, Roman school-children in their smocks and kneesocks ascend a platform in front of this Santo Bambino and recite poems to him, often enlivened with expansive Roman gesturing.
Another Roman custom at Christmas is to go from church to church (there is one on almost every block in Rome) to see the imaginative presepi (pray-SAYpee) or crèches (presepio is singular) that most churches erect.
I still make this mini-pilgrimage at Christmas when I can, because the charm of this folk-art is infectious. Although the crèches are often simply made, additions such as shooting stars, music and babbling brooks make them enchanting.
Some even have lighting that changes from sunrise through the day and evening to starlight, and of course the Star of Bethlehem often guides the three kings across sandpaper plains.
The annual outdoor festa in Rome's magnificent Piazza Navona is always fun, with lights strung like a country fair's, food and crafts, and an outdoor Nativity scene. Roman children don't wait for reindeer and St. Nicholas, but for La Befana, a good old witch who appears at Epiphany with presents.
Television has imprinted Santa on little minds, however, and so you may see both of them strolling around this glorious ancient oblong piazza where Augustus watched athletic contests centuries before Bernini designed fountains during the Baroque period.
But the greatest joy is to come as you cross the bridge called the Ponte Sant'Angelo, named for the Archangel Michael, whose statue you'll see atop Castel Sant'Angelo across the River Tiber.
As you cross, the splendid angels with whirling robes that line the bridge seem to be rejoicing even though each carries an instrument of Christ's passion.
It doesn't take a great imagination to hear them singing “Oh, come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …” Oh come ye to … St. Peter's, whose famous Michelangelo-designed dome can be seen not far off.
Although there were few Christmas trees in Rome when I first moved there, today the tradition seems to have caught on, and in front of St. Peter's a tall pine tree shelters a life-size Nativity scene.
As you walk along the street (the Via della Conciliazione) toward that cradle of the Catholic faith, in reality or in your daydreams, you may find yourself humming “I'll be home for Christmas” — and you will be.
Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.
- December 12-18, 2004