Advent and Christmas at the Vatican

The liturgical season of Christmas does not end on Dec. 25; it extends through the beginning of January.

Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City at Christmas time. (Adobe Stock)

(RealClearWire) — When I was a child, my parents and I would attend Christmas Eve Mass at St. John’s Catholic Church in Whitehall, Wis. When we got home, my father and I would watch the replay of Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican on television. After watching the beautiful Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, we would say to each other, “One day, we’ll go there together!”

Sadly, my father and mother were never able to make the trip to the Vatican. However, as the former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, I was blessed to attend Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s on several occasions. And each time, I brought the memory of my parents with me.

Christians take part in a variety of traditions during Advent and the Christmas season.

Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. The Vatican has many beautiful traditions that take place during this time each year.

Since 1953, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the pope traditionally venerates a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. This year, while observing the annual tradition of adorning the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a wreath, Pope Francis prayed, “We want to thank you because in silence, as is your style, you watch over this city, which today wraps you in flowers to tell you its love.”

In early December, the Vatican unveils its Nativity scene and lights its Christmas tree.

This year’s Nativity scene was donated by the Diocese of Rieti and unveiled on Dec. 9. It commemorates the 800th anniversary of the first live Nativity scene staged by St. Francis of Assisi in a cave near Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve in 1223. The scene in St. Peter’s Square was inspired by a 15th-century fresco that now adorns the cave, which Pope Francis said “reminded [St. Francis] of the landscape in Bethlehem.”

This year’s 28-meter spruce came from the Piedmont region of Italy and was lit on Dec. 9.

Throughout December, small Nativity scenes are also on display at the Vatican. This exhibition has become a tradition and is held annually under the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square. This year’s exhibit features more than 120 Christmas crèches from 22 countries, including Italy, the United States, Poland, and Ukraine.

On Saturdays leading up to Christmas, visitors and pilgrims can also learn more about how the Nativity of Jesus Christ has been depicted throughout history by taking a special Nativity in Art tour at the Vatican Museums.

Sister Emanuela Edwards, who leads Educational Activities for the pontifical collections, said, “What particularly moved me was the reaction of children who enthusiastically learned about the origins of the characters in the Nativity scene. For some of them, it was the first time they encountered the biblical stories of the birth of Jesus. The tour was truly an act of evangelization!”

Visitors can explore centuries of early Christian art in the pontifical collections while venturing through the Pius-Christian Museum, the Pinacoteca, and the Sistine Chapel.

“Through art,” Sister Emanuela said, “the events of the Lord’s birth enter into our minds and hearts in a real way, contributing to making this central mystery not only for faith but also for our lives.”

The Advent season concludes and the Christmas season begins with a papal Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 24. This year, Pope Francis celebrated the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve with millions of Catholics watching around the world.

On Christmas Day, the Holy Father delivers the Urbi et Orbi, a papal blessing extended “to the city and to the world.” The Pope normally gives this special blessing from the balcony of the central façade of St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas and Easter.

The liturgical season of Christmas does not end, however, on Dec. 25; it extends through the beginning of January. Throughout this holy season, the Catholic Church will celebrate the Feast of Saint Stephen on Dec. 26, the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, on Jan. 1, the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord on Jan. 7, and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 8.

As we prepare for Christmas, let us take time to reflect on the mysteries of the Nativity and the birth of Jesus Christ.

For more commentary from Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich, visit

This article was originally published by RealClearPolicy and made available via RealClearWire.


Callista L. Gingrich