One of the main reasons Joe and I booked Rome for December was to attend Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter’s Square. Joe was raised Catholic, and although he no longer practices, we knew it would still be a special experience. But when I started researching how to go about it, there wasn’t a lot of readily available information. After quite a bit of digging around on the Internet, we learned just enough to make it happen.
To be clear – we watched the Christmas Eve mass on a jumbotron in the square, not inside the basilica itself. More on that below. And although we had a very successful and rewarding experience, it would’ve been nice to know more before venturing all the way over to the Vatican on a hope and a prayer. So, if you want to have a relaxing, easy, and enjoyable experience on Christmas in Rome, read on.
Here are my best tips and tricks for attending the Christmas Eve “midnight” mass (outside) and the Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi address at St. Peter’s square:
Christmas Eve Mass:
- If you want to attend the mass inside the Basilica, you’ll have to request tickets several months in advance. It’s a complex process, and as far as I can tell you aren’t guaranteed tickets at all. There’s more information on the Papal audience website. We did not plan ahead enough to look further into this option.
- Mass started at 9:15 this year, but in previous years it started at 10pm (and before that, midnight). Check the Papal audience website for next year’s time and details.
- You’ll have to go through security before entering the square. We joined a large mass/line of people heading for the side gates of the square where we were then funneled into different security lines. That whole process took about 20 minutes, so plan your arrival accordingly. We got off the metro around 7:45 and were in the square by 8:10 or so. You can bring water, food, purses, backpacks, etc into the square, but they’ll have to pass through the scanners.
- If you want (good) seats in the square (there are about 4,000-5,000 chairs set up just in front of the Basilica), get there by 8pm. Most seats in front of the two smaller jumbotrons were full by around 8:30, and all the other chairs were taken by 8:45 or so.
- The square was still mostly empty when the procession began at 9:15. It never filled up. So if you don’t care about sitting down (for the two hour mass), feel free to arrive whenever and watch the mass on the two larger jumbotrons on the left and right sides of the square. You can, of course, come and go as you please.
- The mass is really beautiful – the choir sings many hymns, the Pope and other members of the church offer prayers and blessings, and various community members speak as well.
- Priests come outside to offer communion towards the end of the mass (around 10:30).
- Public transportation (the metro, and all buses/trams) stops running around 9pm on Christmas Eve – so plan to walk back to your hotel/Airbnb (Ubers/taxis will be very hard to come by).
- It can get very cold – it is December, after all – so bundle up! You’ll be sitting (and standing intermittently) for two hours, and your feet will freeze.
- There are bathrooms on site (to the left side of the square just before the colonnade starts)! They’re free, but sometimes there can be a line (usually just for the women’s).
Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi Address
- Every year at noon on Christmas Day the Pope steps out onto the small balcony on the front of St. Peter’s Basilica and gives his 20 minute Urbi et Orbi (the City and the World) address.
- We arrived around 10am and went through the same security process as the night before. The line wasn’t as big that morning. In the square, there was a little crowd waiting to get into the seating area, and some groups of people hanging out around the tree, presepe (manger), and fountains.
- Access to the seats opened at 10:30am. There was an insane, animal-like flood of crazy people who rushed in to get front row seats. Just go in right when it opens, and you should be able to get a seat in the first few rows.
- The square filled up a little more than it did on Christmas Eve, but it still wasn’t nearly at capacity (80,000 people!). So again, if you don’t mind standing, you can arrive a little before noon. But be sure to leave time for security.
- There was a lovely parade of all the different branches of the military (two had their own bands!) that started around 11:30am. They march down the main avenue leading up to the square, around one of the colonnades, and then down through the middle of the seating area and up the steps to the platform in front of the basilica.
- During the procession of the military and their bands, the seating area is closed off – so if you’re inside, you have to wait until they’ve passed.
- If you leave just after the Pope finishes and walk very briskly back to the metro, you might make it on one of the last trains before they close for the Christmas Day lunch break (1-4:30pm). Otherwise, you’ll have to walk back to your hotel/Airbnb.
All in all, attending these festive events was much easier than we anticipated. Perhaps more people stay home and watch them on TV, or perhaps more people were out of town this year – but it just wasn’t that crazy or crowded (out in the square, anyway). We even met some lovely Texans in line on Christmas Eve. What are the odds? I guess it’s a small world after all.