How do Romans Celebrate Christmas?

Across the many memories of the Christmas holidays passed down to us by earlier generations of Romans, there is one particular element that nostalgically weaves together their oral accounts: the citrusy scent of tangerines. This may seem a bit strange or unexpected, and indeed far from some of the more classic associations with the holidays such as Christmas trees and Nativity scenes, or the rich flavors of traditional desserts like panettone or nougat. And yet it is instead the scent of tangerines—whether at the center of the dining table or instead hanging from decorated trees—that wafts through Romans’ recollections across generations. This tangy scent evokes the intimate family atmosphere that is so precious during the holiday season. After all, the real meaning of Christmas, both in Rome and the world over, is family.

Perhaps it ought to be a point of concern that we so often are only able to truly savor family during these few precious days of holiday reunion with our loved ones. In Rome for one, children are instilled with an appreciation for familial closeness precisely through close ties to their grandparents. It is a deeply reciprocal bond as young ones learn to treasure their grandparents’ recollections from years past. While in turn, for these older men and women who may otherwise spend their year largely in solitude, there can be no greater gift than quality time with their grandchildren. When they eventually part ways following the family festivities, each remembers to hug each other just a little bit tighter for that special night of Christmas Eve, and for that holiest of days on Christmas.

In the weeks leading up to December 25th, Rome lights up in celebration. String lights throughout the city’s historic center accompany Romans along their cold evening walks as they rush to find the most suitable gifts for their loved ones. Places such as Piazza Navona and St. Peter’s Square, brightly lit and marvelous like never before, evoke religious celebration and tradition as they become filled with locals and tourists exchanging well wishes. All the while, the anticipation grows for the famous Christmas Eve lunch to be prepared with the utmost care. Recipes abound to hopefully satisfy the whole family (and perhaps even spark some heated debates around the table on the best technique to cook the cod, or how to perfectly prepare spaghetti with clams!) Some of the most common debates in traditional Roman circles revolve around the proper way to salt the fish, where is the rightful spot at the table for grandfather, and whether or not to unwrap the presents on Christmas Eve or to patiently wait for the following morning… But in the end, what really matters most is that the children are happy! Yes, in Rome there are always lively discussions around the table, but only because the whole family truly wants the best for each other so as to spend a peaceful Christmas bonded by their shared experiences, hopes, and joy for the year to come.

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Scuola Leonardo da Vinci Rome

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