Christmas Eve at St. Peter's

Christmas Eve at St. Peterʼs


Arms pinned to my sides, neck craned, strobe-like lighting accompanying a vertiginous din . . . the memory of my visit to the Sistine Chapel many summers ago. An unfortunately negative experience that featured hordes of unruly tourists and their flashing cameras left me with a less than favorable association with the Vatican. So when my friend Veronika suggested that we go to the Mass on Christmas Eve at St. Peterʼs, I hoped that this would be one ticket I wouldnʼt win.

To be one of the lucky thousands, you must either write a letter or fax an application to the prefecture of the Vatican. (No emails or phone calls accepted.) Then, you show up at a specified door and you wait. Veronika availed herself of European snail mail and I, being in Italy, put my faith in a Calabrian fax, a service for which I paid dearly without any actual receipt of its transmission. Veronika arrived in Rome several days before me, approaching those Swiss guards once, twice . . . , and on the third morning when she was first in line, before she even had the chance to identify herself, the official addressed her by name, “Good morning, Signora Hahn. How many tickets would you like?”

Swiss guard at the Vatican

Swiss Guard, St. Peter’s, Rome

Fate had struck, along with a little persistence on the part of one, Signora Hahn. Well, I thought, at least I wouldn’t have that overwhelming August thirst, only teased by the guy with the cooler on a little landing off a staircase selling the world’s smallest Coke cans for 5 Euros each. However, in keeping with the concerns of any good American whose daily liquid intake equals that of a European’s weekly consumption, my apprehension was divided between his Holiness’ port-a-johns and the availability of a taxi after the service, particularly in light of the fact that an eye-hook broke off my only pair of shoes and I was all aches and pains dragging my loose footwear through the Roman streets.


As the hour approached, just getting there seemed as though it would also be a challenge. The night clerk at the B&B was pessimistic with regard to the availability of public transportation. So we set off rather early, arriving at St. Peterʼs Square around 7:20 for the 10 p.m. service. The line already wound around almost the whole, large circular “square.” We got on it. A few seconds later, a friendly group of coatless Americans from Chicago got behind us. They didn’t have tickets, but for them it was exciting just to wait on the line, soaking up the international atmosphere as they conversed with the Swiss couple behind them.

Christmas Eve at St. Peter's

Nativity Scene in St. Peter’s Square

Without tickets, the Chicagoans were eventually turned away by security, but the colorfully striped shirt of one man in their party served its purpose when returning from the lovely (at least when I used it before entering the church) underground bathroom, right on the edge of the square. And in a world with an ever increasing presence of the dubious tip jar, it was nice to see the “Employees are not allowed to accept tips” sign prominently posted in several languages.

Back in our holding position, we couldn’t help but notice a nearby metal detector already open for business with the occasional group of people whisking through on their way into the church. They were apparently luckier than we were as they were in possession of blue tickets. Our yellow-ticket line began to move at around 8:30, and we slowly worked our way around the square, going through the metal detectors just when the mist turned into a heavy drizzle.


Christmas Eve at St. Peter's

Camera boom in St. Peter’s

We waltzed past lots of security people, men in suits with earpieces, and then as we entered, the sentries were dressed in various, very attractive uniforms. We took the best seats open to us, more than halfway back just to the left of the center aisle and a few rows behind a break between the lines of seating where there was an enormous camera boom. In other words, in a fairly prime position for processional viewing.

Once inside, we actually had less time before the service than I would have thought. I was sitting next to a pleasant woman who worked for the Costa Rican embassy. Veronika may have been sitting behind the shortest little old Italian woman in the place. She was motionless for several hours until the moment in which she thought she had missed communion, and she literally catapulted out of her seat, knocking over chairs and stepping over anyone who got between her and the wine-filled chalice.

There was a minor incident with a crazy guy clutching an oversized crucifix at the end of the row on the center aisle. A suited security guard asked him to hand over his green, plastic water bottle that he seemed to have in an upside down position in his bag on the floor. He played the I-donʼt-understand-any-of-the-languages-youʼre-throwing-at-me routine. The guard looked really exasperated when the kid didnʼt even respond to a couple simple words of English. Personally, I would have kicked him out. He seemed too good looking to be there all by himself, and combined with the jumbo cross, he was a suspicious character, especially since he wasnʼt handing out any of those, “Please give me money, Iʼm mute” cards.

Christmas Eve at St. Peter's

Mass, St. Peter’s

About 9:30 there was a pre-service in preparation for the Holy Mass. They supplied us with very nice program booklets that were quite easy to follow as there was always an Italian translation when they sang or spoke in Latin, or when they had readings in other languages. The guy who did the English readings had about the flattest, mid-west accent imaginable, as if he had really worked to eliminate any trace of personality whatsoever.

And then all of a sudden: Lights, Camera, Action! And we were thrust into Prime Time. Some extremely warm brass music coming from an upper window in the rear accompanied the processional. I was so busy trying to work the zoom on my new camera that it was still engaged when all of a sudden the Pope was upon us and I only got a close up of some womanʼs hair. You know, youʼre waiting, youʼre waiting, and then, whoosh! He’s already booked past you.


All in all, it was a nice service—stately, orderly, with a touch of solemnity and a good dose of decorum. I must say though, that I missed the traditional English Christmas carols. If the congregation knew they could have been singing, “Joy to the World” or “Angels We Have Heard On High” or “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” they, too, would have felt as though something was lacking. The choir was small and basically good, but I wanted to turn to someone and say, “Itʼs not the Mormon Tabernacle!”

The booklets contained the musical manuscripts to, I suppose, help with the group participation. And the fact that no one knew how to read said manuscripts didnʼt change the fact that they were very nice to look at. Here, I must say that being Protestant in no way held me back with regard to the singing. By page 21 I realized that I had gotten the hang of interpreting the melody. The rhythm, unfortunately, I never did quite understand. Perhaps the interpretation of such is vague, as even the cantor, who had an excellent voice, wasnʼt always in agreement with the organist on the matter. So if they werenʼt able to get it together, how would your average member of the congregation ever be able to understand the system? At the risk of diminishing the beauty of the booklet, Iʼd recommend the use of modern notation and/or lessons on reading the ligatures in catechism class in hopes of dispelling the general apathy of the parishioners and ecclesiastics alike.


Christmas Eve at St. Peter's

Pope Benedict XVI

For communion, the priests came down the aisles, but interestingly, they never passed the plate for an offertory. Towards midnight, they all processed back down the aisle, turning in front of us to put baby Jesus into the manger. Several nuns jumping up and down in front of me obstructed my perfect frontal photo op of the Pope, but I caught him as he negotiated the bend, and then with the crowd surging in the direction of the nativity scene, I went in the opposite direction knowing that theyʼd be coming back that way for the final cortège leading to the opening of the doors at midnight.

I must say, though, that the Pope looked much more humane in person than on TV. And the clergyʼs clothing is really quite handsome. I wonder how many children they could feed in Africa with just one sash.


As the service came to an end, the churchgoers flocked to the exits, but Iʼd like to note that the throng seemed to have absorbed a bit of spirit as I didnʼt have any fear that I could have been trampled. Once outside, we headed towards the taxi stand, knowing that securing one would be next to impossible. So, we moved towards the river and quite easily flagged one down as it crossed the bridge, cutting it off as it aimed for the basilica.

Our driver was quite pleasant, and as we were chatting, Veronika decided to clear up a grammar point from earlier in the day when a fruit vendor corrected her use of the masculine for the mandarin orange. When she asked the cabby if it was mandarino or mandarina, he initially thought she wanted him to find a grocery store. However, he confirmed that it was indeed masculine and we all had a good laugh as we pulled up to our pensione.

mandarin oranges in Italy

Mandarini (plural)

Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s was a once in a lifetime experience. Read more about Christmas in Italy and the beautiful “presepi” or Italian nativity scenes in my blog post Away in the Manger … in Italy and about Christmas in Southern Italy in my post Images of Christmas in Calabria.

Interested in Italian lifestyle and traditions? Calabria: The Other Italy and Basilicata: Authentic Italy make you feel as though you’re experiencing southern Italy for yourself. Step into my shoes as I go about daily life, experiencing the people and the place first hand in work, recreation and travels.Italy books

Would you like to visit Calabria? Check out the itinerary of my Calabria tour!


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  1. Sorry it has taken me SO long to find this! I think I’ve missed the Christmas season! Nevertheless, ’twas most enjoyable! Thanks for sharing it with us!

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