Christmas in Europe is what I feel Christmas in the US used to be like a few decades ago before it became overly commercialized and marketing-oriented. The Christmas of 2010 my girlfriend and I were in Rome, and Rome knows how to do Christmas. There was a wonderful Christmas market in Piazza Navona, one of the major Piazzas in the heart of the city. Christmas markets sell savory and sweet treats, mulled wine, handmade clothing, and a wide array of holiday decorum. The city itself is decorated nicely with red and green banners hanging across Rome’s ancient narrow streets and walkways saying Buon Natale. There was an enormous 60ft Christmas tree in the middle of the Piazza dei Re di Roma which is more like a turnabout in the center of the city. The city also displays a wide array of Nativity scenes in various piazzas and we got the chance to see an exhibit that had over 100 Nativity scenes made by artists from around the world.
Christmas morning, the very helpful and friendly man that worked at the front desk of our hotel told us that on Christmas everything would be closed and that the public transportation in the city would cease to run. We believed this because in the US most things DO close down for Christmas. This turned out to be false. We had stocked up on food and wine thinking that restaurants would be closed, but when we hit the street that lovely morning almost every restaurant was open, had plenty of patrons, and in a display of cosmic humor, as soon as we realized that we’d been deceived, a bus packed with people passed us by. We feared that this would put a damper in our day because we didn’t make many plans for the day thinking everything would be shut down.
One thing that was definitely unique to Roman Christmas was being able to attend mass led by the Pope himself. At Vatican City, it was great to see the hundreds of people from all over the world decked out in their Sunday finest attire gather in droves to see Il Papa. It seemed that every other person around us at any given time spoke a different language than the person next to them. The procession itself was very formal and commenced with a parade involving the Swiss Guard along with other individuals in very brightly colored attire, some of it more military-looking and some more Renaissance-esque. Groups of compatriots also gathered and I remember a group of Mexicans holding their flag up and singing “Ay ay ay ay, Papa no llores!” and “Se ve, se siente, el Papa está presente,” to urge the Pope to come out of his cave (Kinda like what people do when they want a band to come back on stage and play one final song). The Pope gave mass from a balcony in the very center of the building between two enormous halves of Corinthian columns. The balcony was adorned with enormous red velvet tapestries that hung like stage curtains behind his throne. Hanging directly in front of the papal chair was a richly decorated red velvet tapestry with gold edging and a highly symbolic papal seal in the middle. The Pope’s chair itself was the same red velvet material with a nicely carved golden frame and an icon in the high center that looked to me like earth in the shape of an egg. On this balcony were a total of six people including the Pope: First the camera man, who also performed the sound check, and an official of whose duties I know nothing about, and four other figures, two high-ranking bishops and two cardinals if I had to guess.
Finally, the Pope came out onto the balcony with a broad smile and his hands held high into the air to salute the mass of people who had congregated to see him on this special holiday. He was dressed in pure white with gold designs going down the sides of the red lapels and his usual bright white cap, oh wait… that was his snowy white hair. He sat down, and proceeded to say “Merry Christmas” in what seemed like every language on the planet, except English (which we thought was funny). He then began to give a speech in Italian, which was difficult for me to understand but knowing Spanish and some French I did manage to get the gist of what he was conveying. I was quite impressed with the parts I understood and I thought his speech to be very worldly and appropriate. He spoke about how he hoped for peace, naming a few regions where this was especially applicable, including Israel/Palestine where he hoped some peace and friendly cohabitation of the land there would someday become a reality. He also talked about the spirit in such a way that didn’t seem to come through the Catholic filter of the ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ model and could have easily applied to humankind in general regardless of religion. His talk went on for about 45 minutes, after which the crowd slowly started to disperse and head back to the various sections of the city.
As we shuffled our way out of the piazza with the rest of the herd I decided to stop to take a picture with the policeman on a motorcycle that people had formed a line to be photographed with. And thus our adventure of seeing the Pope and attending the mass of masses ended with us being in good holiday cheer moods and happy that we managed to make the event which we both agreed was quite impressive. Christmas is a special time of year around the world, but Roman Christmas will always hold a special place for me.