A Roman Christmas Story: The Sights, the Sounds and the Spirit


An impromptu Christmas trip to Rome proved to be the experience of a lifetime.

The following article, written by Patricia E. Russo, appeared in La Nostra Voce — ISDA’s monthly newspaper.

In 1990, as Christmas drew closer, instead of the excitement I had always felt at this time of year, I became more and more melancholy. I loved Christmas, the tradition, the tree, the shopping and wrapping, even the cooking of the Christmas Eve meal for 35 people. I especially loved our nativity scene, our setting it up as a family, and then hiding baby Jesus until midnight on Christmas Eve. I loved our nativity even more than decorating our Christmas tree, laden with ornaments given to each of our four children, one for every year since their births. I love the pageantry and celebration of Christmas Mass, my husband and I sitting side by side with our two daughters, and our two sons. I loved our being together as a family.

The coming Christmas wasn’t going to be that kind of Christmas though, the coming Christmas was going to be a little different. Our sons, Anthony and Joe, were both in England spending their junior years of college in study abroad programs. I’d adjusted to having them both gone from our daily lives, but this was Christmas, and it would be our first Christmas without all of our children coming home.

I awoke one morning in mid-November, and panicked. If we wanted our sons to have presents for Christmas, we better buy and mail them immediately. But then, I had a sudden thought: what if the four of us, still at home, went to visit my sons in Europe!

I laid out my plan, but it wasn’t the easiest sell. I had to work hard on my husband, Basil, and harder on our teenage daughter, Gabriella. (Basil Russo currently serves as President of ISDA). Our 12-year-old daughter, Angela, was game from the start. We finally all agreed this would be everyone’s gift for Christmas. The biggest gift my husband ever imagined! We talked to our sons and made plans to meet up in Rome, of course. Little did I know, this would become the most favorite Christmas of my life.

Rome’s chilly weather was perfect for Christmas time. We spent the days before Christmas seeing all the sights of Rome. The city had a special charm with colored lights and stars strung across the narrow ancient streets. At the top of the Spanish Steps while viewing a Presepio (Nativity scene), a group of shepherds – who had come to Rome from the mountains of the Abruzzo — suddenly appeared playing their bagpipes. I have always loved bagpipes, and thought that seemed a little strange, until I heard the Abruzzo shepherds from my parents’ region.

As we walked about Rome sightseeing, we would stop in churches along the way. We realized quickly that every church had a Presepio of its own design. Each Presepio was either a different size or a different configuration made of different materials, such as terra cotta, ceramic, glass and even paper mâché. All the figures represented Bethlehem as an Italian village, with townspeople, farms, mountains, lakes, shepherds, assorted animals, magi and angels, and of course, the Holy Family–central to every scene.

On Christmas Eve day, in anticipation of Rome’s restaurants being closed for Christmas Day, we went to a little Alimentari (Italian food and wine store), and bought sopresatta. prosciutto, roasted artichokes, olives, an assortment of cheeses and pizza, all to stave off our expected Christmas Day hunger.

We had tickets for Pope John Paul II’s Midnight Mass, and planned on finding a restaurant along the way. To our surprise, we were wrong about restaurants closing on Christmas Day. We found out that Italians spend Christmas Eve at home with their families, and close their restaurants. But on Christmas Day, Roman families go to restaurants, to the Piazza Novana Christmas Market, and walk about enjoying the city’s decorations. By the time a kind gentlemen explained that to us, we were too far from our hotel to return for our refrigerated dinner. So we did the next best thing, we found the only open restaurant, and had a very unusual — but good — Chinese Christmas Eve seafood dinner. We laughed through the entire meal, feeling very much like the Parker family in the movie, The Christmas Story.

We arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica at 10 p.m., as instructed, and sat in awe at the beauty and complexity at everything we saw for the next four hours. The pageantry of the Basilica’s Midnight Mass was perfection. The procession of the Cardinals, Bishops and Priests was truly breathtaking. But the entrance of Pope John Paul II, walking slowly, and I’m sure painfully, almost swallowed up by his magnificent robes, became that one true moment of Christmas I had been hoping for. The kind of moment that takes your breath away. The moment when you feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. That moment when you truly experience Christ’s Mass.

Christmas is now the one holiday when it’s difficult for all of our children and grandchildren to be together. We are blessed to celebrate Christmas Eve with our daughters, their husbands, their children and often assorted in-laws. The grandchildren receive a new ornament and then select other favorite ornaments to put on the tree. They then set up our Presepio. Basil hides baby Jesus for one of the children to place at the stable at midnight. Usually everyone is gone by then, so after I finish cleaning up, in the quiet first hours of Christmas Day, I place the Christ child and sit in silence, remembering my favorite Christmas, when a living Saint gave me the true gift of Christmas.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page color monthly newspaper. Join ISDA today for $25/year and receive a 12-month subscription of the newspaper that features stories chronicling Italian travel, culture, food and much more. Buon Natale to all!

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