Christmas is an important time in the Christian calendar. Celebrated on December 25th every year, it commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. While it is traditionally a religious celebration, it has become a magical holiday that lasts throughout December and encourages people to spend time with loved ones, engage in acts of charity and have fun. Of course, it’s no different at the Vatican City. Tours during the festive period have an extra touch of magic - and there is plenty happening at the Vatican over Christmas…
See the Christmas Tree
If you’re not planning to be in Rome or visiting the Vatican City on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or St. Stephen’s Day - then don’t worry. The Christmas season in Rome starts on December 8th, known as Immacolata, and lasts until January 6th - the Epiphany. Therefore, you will still be able to get into the holiday spirit during tours of the Vatican before and after Christmas!
The St. Peter’s Square Christmas tree is an incredible sight to see. The tradition of erecting a Christmas tree at the Vatican City started with Polish-born Pope John Paul II, in 1982, when he introduced the northern European custom that was so popular in his homeland. The first tree was sourced locally, but over the years the Vatican has accepted a tree donated by a different region or country - Austria, Germany, Poland and other countries have donated trees over the years, which is considered a great honor.
This year, the Vatican will switch on their Christmas tree lights on December 5. The tree will come from the forests in the Rotzo area of northern Italy, which were devastated by storms just over a year ago. This year’s tree is a 26-meter tall Spruce and promises to be really something special. The light switch-on starts at 4.30pm, and you don’t need tickets to see this magical moment.
Admire the Nativity Scene
As well as the Christmas Tree in St. Peter’s Square, December 5 will see the unveiling of the Vatican City’s nativity scene. This year’s nativity scene has been created almost entirely out of timber from the Scurelle, in northern Italy’s Trento region. The scene will feature over 20 life-sized figures alongside tree trunks from forests hit by the devastating 2018 storms.
While traditionally the Vatican City’s nativity scene was always put on display on Christmas Eve, to coincide with the timing of when these events were taking place, it is now unveiled alongside the Christmas tree. Again, you don’t need tickets and having the chance to see this incredible nativity scene is the best. Vatican tours are running on December 5, and having the opportunity to be one of the first to see the St. Peter’s Square nativity scene makes it a great day to book your Vatican City tour.
The Vatican Christmas Eve Mass
If you really want to experience Christmas at the Vatican, then the Christmas Eve mass is the way to do it. It is the most-watched Christmas mass around the world, and it takes place in the beautiful setting of St. Peter’s Basilica.
You can reserve tickets to the Christmas Eve mass. To apply, you need to fax THIS FORM to +39 06 698 85863. The Vatican will send you a letter to confirm that they have received your request, although this is not confirmation of tickets. You actually have to confirm your tickets at the Vatican itself 3-5 days ahead of the mass: head to the Prefettura Vaticana, just past the famous bronze doors.
If you aren’t lucky in securing tickets to the Vatican Christmas Eve mass, you can watch the live televised version of the ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. Whether you do get tickets or not, arrive with plenty of time to spare because it is guaranteed to be crowded. The mass starts at 9.30pm.
Urbi et Orbi on Christmas Day
This is a papal address and apostolic blessing given by the pope. The Urbi et Orbi happens just twice a year: at Easter, and on Christmas Day. It takes place in St. Peter’s Square at midday, and there are no tickets required. However, it is likely to get busy, so it is recommended that you arrive with plenty of time to spare.
This is broadcast worldwide. It includes greetings in many different languages, in order to be as inclusive as possible of everybody celebrating the festive holiday. While the museums are closed on Christmas Day, so there are no Vatican tours available, you can still visit the city and St. Peter’s Basilica to see the Pope!
Angelus/Papal Blessing on December 26th
This is another opportunity to see the Pope up close at Christmas. Wednesdays are the usual day for a Papal audience, but the Angelus address is usually delivered on a Sunday - so you will get the chance to experience something a little different at the Vatican City. Tour guides take you to St. Peter’s Square, but to be there when the Pope is giving a blessing is something incredibly special.
You do not need a ticket to experience this but as with many other Vatican experiences at Christmas, it will get busy. Arrive with plenty of time to spare - the blessing starts at noon.
Christmas Traditions at the Vatican
There are other Christmas traditions observed at the Vatican that you might not see: the 24 hours fast prior to Christmas Day, the burning of Yule Logs and decorating rooms and homes with a Ceppo and Presepio. All of these are traditional Italian customs and have been co-opted by the Vatican over the years.
Christmas is such an important holiday for the Christian faith and being able to celebrate it at the Vatican is such a special way to cement your religious beliefs. Even if you aren't particularly religious, a Vatican tour at Christmas is a little bit more magical with the lights and festive cheer. With a Vatican museum tour during December, you have the chance to see even more than you expected!