Roman Holiday: Christmas In Situ

Mass en masse.
Freedom of speech: Romans have scrawled their thoughts on their legendary graffiti wall for centuries.
By Rick Steves

Tourists are often content to "experience" the art and culture of Europe in museums and on stage. But a true traveler's goal is to be engulfed in a living culture, to enjoy it in situ — the art-history term for "on location."

The magic of being "on location" strikes us as we look around. We are the only non-Italians in a boulevard packed with strolling locals. Everyone is making the scene in fancy furs and designer scarves along Via del Corso.

Earlier in the day we were blessed in Italian by the pope — along with thousands of other worshippers jammed into St. Peter's Basilica. We reveled in the timeless magnificence of the moment, as several hundred ushers herd those star-struck by a chance to be near him. Nearby, the peacocks of the security world — the fancy-garbed Vatican Guard, with their flamboyant helmets and medieval pikes — stand watch. Their darting eyes and walkie-talkie earpieces show they are there for more than ritual and decoration.

Pouring like sand out of a spiritual hourglass from the Basilica into St. Peter's Square, we join a larger crowd that had experienced the Mass outside by watching huge rock-concert-type video screens set up in the square. Groups from around the Catholic world — cowboy-hatted Calabrians forcing wine on strangers, mustachioed Sicilians bellowing Buon Anno (Happy New Year) to their pope, and noisy teenagers from Mexico screaming "Viva Meh-hee-ko" — wait for El Papa to appear from the window of his study overlooking the square.

We stand in the shadow of an Egyptian obelisk that marks the center of the square. It's the same obelisk Peter saw, the day he was crucified here, 2,000 years ago, and the same obelisk medieval pilgrims set their weary sights on as their treks worked up to a Vatican finale.

Suddenly, the famous window opens, the red banner flops down, and the pope appears. After he finishes, the crowd of 50,000 disperses into Rome. Piazza Navona, Rome's finest square, is festive and packed with vendor's stalls and shoppers throughout the twelve days of Christmas. (This Epiphany Sunday is the twelfth and final day of celebration.) Stockings filled with carbone zuccherato — the hunks of black-dyed sugar representing chunks of coal that bad kids get — are selling fast.

Old timers prowl the stalls, sifting through all the Chinese-made inflatable and plastic gizmos for anything handmade or traditionally Roman. A butcher's wife cuts me a slice of pork from a slab the size of a dancing partner. I offer to pay but she says if I like porchetta, I'll spend a lifetime paying... so this first one's on her.

Families hoist their wide-eyed children aboard a reindeer-drawn sleigh for Polaroid memories. An ugly old wench named La Befana accompanies a scraggly Santa Claus as red-and-white clad elves snap souvenir photos. In Italy, it is traditionally La Befana who leaves presents on the morning of January 6 for good boys and girls.

January 6 is also Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas (the day the wise men arrived with their gifts for baby Jesus). This is the last day of gift buying and giving for Italian families. And all the kids buzz in anticipation of tonight's Christmas season finale: the festive burning of La Befana, that misunderstood fairy-tale figure with a broomstick.

A key to good travel is to experience both life and art in situ. Around the corner from Piazza Navona, a well-worn old statue sits covered with feedback from this Roman neighborhood. This graffiti tradition goes back centuries, to times when people couldn't speak their minds but could write (anonymously) what was in their hearts.

Under a sloppy Italian flag, messages scrawled around the statue proclaim that in spite of the current north Italian independence movement, Italy should remain united. Below that someone gripes that Rome's many pedestrian streets cause traffic jams everywhere. And someone else declares that America's motivation for wars in the Middle East is its need for cheap oil.

A few blocks away the ancient Pantheon, once a Roman temple, is filled with folding chairs, people and music — now in action as a modern-day church. Across the street, we drink coffee, an art form itself in Rome, and review the local concert schedule. The Church of Sant' Ignazio has a free evening choral concert and the Doria Pamphilj Palace, home of an 18th-century art-loving duke, is hosting a chandelier-lit string quartet amid paintings by Raphael, Caravaggio, and Velazquez.

In Florence, as in Rome, the trend is to show art not in museums, but in situ...in the place for which it was intended. Until recently, Michelangelo's slender first crucifix was displayed in the Casa Buonarroti museum. Now this painted wooden masterpiece hangs in the chapel of the Santo Spirito church, surrounded by the pristine Renaissance lines of Brunelleschi's architecture — just as Michelangelo intended. And across town, Giotto could now find his majestic and newly-restored crucifix hanging just where he put it: above the high altar of the Church of Santa Maria Novella.

Anyone can fly to Europe and go from museum to museum. But to connect with Europe's people and art by seeing and enjoying them in situ... that's always my New Year's travel resolution.