How the Vatican Preps for Christmas

Its special mission to focus the world’s attention on the sacred goes into high gear as Advent winds down.

The Nativity scene and Christmas tree are seen in the early morning in St. Peter's Square.
The Nativity scene and Christmas tree are seen in the early morning in St. Peter's Square. (photo: 2009 CNS photo by Paul Haring)

The festive Christmas spirit has long been in full swing at the Vatican — a time when the eyes of Christendom and much of the rest of the world are trained on Rome.

Since mid-November, artisans have been building the traditional life-size Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, while moving companies have been preparing to place a 100-foot decorated Christmas tree by its side.

The Nativity scene, the size of a two-story house, is a popular tradition with Italians and visitors that was introduced by Pope John Paul II nearly 30 years ago.

It coincides with an annual Vatican-sponsored exhibition of 100 Nativity scenes — called presepi in Italian — which this year will take place in the basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo. It joins thousands of other, often elaborately made, presepi in churches throughout Rome and Italy. The Nativity scene tradition goes back to the time of St. Francis of Assisi.

The Vatican Christmas tree, which is always donated by a different region or country, this year comes from Bolzano, a favorite summer-vacation destination of the Pope in the German-speaking region of northern Italy. The Holy Father will personally receive it on Dec. 17, and on Christmas Eve, he will inaugurate the Nativity scene, which will remain in place until the end of January.

But plenty more is going on, of course, not least regarding preparations for a full diary of papal liturgical events. After the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, during which the Pope makes his traditional address at the foot of the Spanish Steps in the heart of Rome, next to a statue of Our Lady, the Holy Father will make an Advent pastoral visit as the bishop of Rome on Dec. 12. This year he is visiting the Roman parish of St. Maximilian Kolbe on Via Prenestina, a relatively poor part of the city. 

On the evening of Dec. 16, Benedict XVI will preside over vespers with the university students of Rome — also a tradition for this time of year. The Pope will then lead all the principal Christmas liturgies and events: midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s Basilica (beginning at 10pm); the Pope’s blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city of Rome and to the world) on Christmas Day; first vespers and Te Deum in thanksgiving for the past year on New Year’s Eve and, the following day, Mass on the solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God in St. Peter’s Basilica, during which he will deliver the 44th World Day of Peace Message.

The Message for 2011 is “Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace.” The Pope will reaffirm in the message, whose contents have already been released, that all people have a duty and a right to seek religious truth and to practice religion in accordance with their conscience. Finally, the Pope will celebrate Mass on Jan. 6 in St. Peter’s on the solemnity of the Epiphany.

Christmas is a particularly busy time for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which coordinates satellite television coverage of the Vatican Christmas celebrations with broadcasters worldwide. The Pope’s midnight Mass and his “urbi et orbi” address are always popular, and this year both will be broadcast live to more than 60 countries on Vatican Radio and other outlets.

The Vatican doesn’t know for sure how many watch the broadcasts — it is hard to get broadcasters to reveal figures, and they don’t always carry out a ratings sweep — but according to Thaddeus Jones, the Vatican’s chief coordinator of satellite telecasts, audience numbers “easily” run into hundreds of millions. 

The Philippines has one of the largest audiences, said Jones, with “huge numbers — maybe even 50 million people” who watch the “urbi et orbi.” Indonesia is another country with a large audience, where coverage is offered through a major private network.

“They always broadcast midnight Mass, and large numbers, including Muslims, watch,” said Jones. Surprisingly, live coverage is also particularly popular in Nordic countries. “Christmas is really big for them,” said Jones. “Even though predominantly Protestant countries, they like the midnight Mass. Denmark, Finland, Sweden — they all broadcast it on the main public channels.”

The pontifical council coordinates the broadcasts through Eurovision, a major distributor of sports and news content. Thanks to the generosity of the Knights of Columbus, the Vatican can offer the coverage for free to broadcasters, including commentaries in English, Spanish and French. Satellite links are expensive, but the Vatican covers so-called “uplink” costs to transmit signals to the satellite, while, for certain developing countries, the “downlink” cost for reception of the transmitted signal is covered as well.

“Why do we do this? Because Christmas and Easter are two universal times when there’s a global audience and a global interest,” said Jones, a native of South Bend, Ind. They are “strategic evangelizing moments,” he added, so “we try to get a signal easily available to broadcasters so they’ll say: ‘Yeah, we’ll take it.’”

He said that although television is “fragmenting,” it’s still possible to reach countless numbers of people, particularly through large public and private networks such as NBC. The network tapes and airs midnight Mass from St. Peter’s later in the evening, reaching far greater audiences than through Catholic television, and is therefore also, of course, a highly valued Vatican client. “We catch a lot of fish that way — casting our net,” said Jones.

Future audiences at Christmas are expected to grow even larger as the Vatican adopts high-definition television broadcasts and looks to broaden live online streaming. But numbers will only increase, it seems, if the Holy Father continues what has become a papal tradition of wishing everyone “Merry Christmas” in various languages.

“If the Pope skips a language, people ask why they didn’t hear ‘Merry Christmas’ in this or that tongue,” said Jones. “They really want to hear him say Christmas in Hindi or whatever language — it’s a key factor.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.