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Christmas in Rome – just the idea sounds magical, doesn’t it? Imagine it: the famous Christmas Market in Piazza Navona, carolers strolling Rome’s narrow, cobblestoned alleyways, the Eternal City lit up like a Christmas tree…
Except everything in the Christmas Market is made in China, the only Italian Christmas carols are Italian translations of our English songs and though you’ll see white lights strung up in some parts of the city, Italians don’t put up Christmas trees. And don’t even think about hearing a jolly “Ho, ho, ho” from an overweight guy in a fake beard! Instead of Santa Claus, a witch named “La Befana” brings sweets and baked goods to children on January 6th – not even on Christmas!
And yet, though I knew all of this, my parents and I couldn’t think of a better place to spend the holiday. I had been traveling around Italy all through December, tacking on my “2 weeks” to the 2-week holiday office closure, and had racked up enough frequent flyer miles during the year to get my parents two round-trip tickets to Italy for a week, ending their trip with Christmas in Rome. I’m a great daughter, I know.
From the moment I surprised them with the tickets, the one thing my mother was dead-set on was trying to get tickets for Midnight Mass at the Vatican. She submitted the official request form, wrote letters, talked to our priest to see if he could “pull any strings” – all to no avail. There were no tickets to be had; high demand and low supply. I could tell my mom was disappointed because she kept bringing it up, kept trying to find new ways to get tickets. She must’ve gone up to five different people at St. Peter’s Basilica when we visited during normal hours on December 23rd, each time her hopeful expression drooping as she over-pronounced “grazie” and turned away.
And so we found ourselves walking out of our hotel near Campo de’ Fiori just after 9pm on Christmas Eve with no plans except to wander. We had looked into sold-out choral concerts, Christmas recitals and exhibitions, but nothing could quite compare to the idea in our heads of Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pope himself presiding, just like we watched every year on TV. We watched it every year in our house because my mom had grown up watching it, her mother turning it on no matter the hour it aired here in the States, both of them longing to be there “one day”. But some things are just not meant to be, so we started slowly walking north, avoiding the lights and noise of Piazza Navona for the moment to instead stroll through the dark, ancient streets of Rome’s centro storico that hold a magic all their own.
Rome was eerily quiet, most of its residents enjoying an evening at home with family, and so when the Gregorian Chant began we could hear it as if it were only a block or two away. We decided to follow it: along the narrow Via dei Coronari that has led pilgrims for centuries past shops selling rosaries and holy artifacts toward Vatican City, across the formidable “Bridge of Angels” where a host of heavenly beings, frozen in stone, watched over us as we crossed, and further north toward Castello Sant’Angelo over which St. Michael appeared to the Emperor Constantine during his battle for the city. At this point we stopped, confused, and exchanged looks. The music seemed to be coming from the West, from Vatican City. With silent shrugs and barely-contained excitement, we walked on, joining a steady flow of worshipers on Via della Conciliazione, the glow of St. Peter’s a beacon in front of us.
As we walked, the chanting got louder. When we entered the immense square of Piazza San Pietro through the white marble columns surrounding it, we realized that the Gregorian Chant we had been chasing down was actually the protracted opening of a mass. It was barely 10pm but there, on giant video screens set up on each side of the rotunda, we could see the Pope, flanked by his cardinals and bishops, processing down the main aisle toward the altar inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. The basilica we were now standing outside of… at 10pm – not midnight. But from years and years of TV viewing we knew: this was Midnight Mass.
Dozens of rows of white chairs were set up in front of the video screens – all full, of course – and hundreds of other parishioners were standing around in loose clumps all around the square. Suddenly my mom set off like a shot! My dad and I hurried to keep up with her, weaving in between groups of people as unobtrusively as possible. She was on a mission.
We had known, obviously, that people stood in Piazza San Pietro to watch Midnight Mass, but we thought that those places were ticketed. We hadn’t realized that the tickets were for seats inside the basilica and that anyone was able to simply stroll into the piazza and watch from outside, settling in wherever they could find a spot.
And let me tell you – my mother is a master at “finding a spot”. She worked her way up the left side of the piazza, past even the first row of chairs, and stood along the side barricade directly below the video screens. She looked back at my father and I, just catching up with her, with an incredulous and absolutely thrilled look on her face – like a kid at Christmas.
We stood there through most of the mass. The entire time I kept expecting someone to come up to us and tell us we weren’t supposed to be there, but they didn’t. But it wasn’t over, yet…
Time came for communion, where the congregation in the church lines up down the aisles to receive the Eucharist which, in a Catholic mass, the priest – or in this case, the Pope – has just turned from bread into the Body of Christ. It’s one of the seven sacraments of Catholicism, a very important part of the mass with a lot of meaning behind it. We watched as the congregation inside the basilica began to stir, preparing to line up, but then realized that the seated congregation in the piazza was also moving, the ushers instructing them to line up facing the barricade. My mom’s head whipped back toward the screens just in time to see two dozen priests fly down the main aisle of the church and out the big, bronze doors, floating down the stone steps to spill into the piazza.
My mom had already been at the barricade but inched even closer, if that were possible, her hands out in the gesture that tells the priest that she’s ready to accept communion. Her face showed complete shock, confusion and – most of all - desperate hope. My parents live in Florida and don’t own any winter attire, so my mom was wearing an old, pink, blue & sea-foam green fleece jacket of mine from that time in the early ‘90′s when wearing things 4X your size was considered cool. Paired with a bright pink stocking cap she had picked up in a dollar bin somewhere, I had been joking with her the entire trip that she pulled off the “homeless” look pretty well. Together with the desperation on her face, I’d say she was even more convincing.
As if it had been prearranged, the first priest down the steps turned right and came straight toward my mom while the others fanned out to begin distributing communion. He approached – a young priest, skin as dark as his robe was light, tall and bald with full lips and kind eyes like pools of midnight. I’ll remember him forever, because as he placed the Eucharist in my mother’s palm her face seemed to crack and she burst into tears. Her shoulders shook with sobs as she placed the Eucharist in her mouth, so much so that the priest turned back to her after having moved on to other worshipers, rested a hand on her head and said, “Don’t cry”. She nodded and he made the sign of the cross above her forehead in a Blessing, watching her with a concerned eye as she turned around back to embrace my father and I, who had just received communion from another priest.
“Did you see that?” she said to us, still crying. “I got communion at Midnight Mass!” Then, through the tears, she broke out into a childlike grin, as if she had just found the Christmas presents where her parents had hidden them, and added, “and he gave me a special Blessing!”
We walked slowly back through the streets of Rome, reflecting on our unexpected adventure. Chinese trinkets and lack of Christmas trees aside, we couldn’t deny the magic of that night. Gregorian chant had taken the place of Christmas carols, the video screens of Piazza San Pietro had replaced Christmas trees and the gathering in St. Peter’s Square was better than any Christmas Market could ever have been. Lifelong dream? Check! Christmas in Rome?