As Snoopy would say, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and Michael got us two of the scarce tickets to attend midnight Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter’s. Actually, the mass began at 10, but never mind.
We’d read some dreadful things on the Internet about the logistics of going to the Christmas Eve mass—no buses after 11 p.m. (true); few, if any, cabs after the mass (we saw some); no reserved seats, so people jump the line (true), push and shove (not true), and make a run for seats after they clear security (true); Vatican City closed to all traffic after 7 p.m. (we don’t know). Despite this grim outlook and rainy weather, we decided to give it a try.
Because I wasn’t able to walk home after mass, even though we don’t live that far away, Michael drove the car to Vatican City at 5 p.m., parked it a couple of blocks from St. Peters, and walked home. At 7 p.m. we caught the 23 bus and hopped off 10 minutes later about five blocks from St. Peter’s. We should have driven, however, because the entire street leading up to the basilica had tons of parking places!
When we got to St. Peter’s Square, the line of ticketholders wound around the square once. By the time the security stations opened, the line wound around the square twice. I perched under my umbrella on an iron railing in front of one of the fountains, while Michael waited in line. At about 9:15 he finally appeared, and we went through security and made our way toward the church. I thought I’d be blown away in an arctic gale that hit us at the top of the slippery marble stairs leading to the plaza in front of St. Peter’s—icy!
When we got inside the first set of gates, we were directed to the right and behind the basilica. We had no idea where we’d end up. Amazingly we entered St. Peter’s in the north transept and found seats that looked directly at the main altar, which was only about 50 or so feet from us! If we’d gone in the main doors, we’d have been seated at the back of the church and wouldn’t have been able to see a thing. Talk about luck!
We had a clear view of everything in front AND in back of the altar, so while the pope was busy in front, we could also watch people in back preparing for the next steps.
To begin the ceremony, all of the cardinals approached the altar from the back, removed their mitres, and kissed the altar before taking their seats surrounding the altar. Then the pope came in on a motorized platform of some sort (we couldn’t see it, but I’d like to borrow it for the next couple of months, please). He also approached the altar from the back, removed his bejeweled mitre, and kissed the altar before taking his seat in front of the altar.
The service was mostly in Latin, with several other languages thrown in here and there. I never studied Latin, so I understood only the few English words, but it was so peaceful to just sit inside that gorgeous church, listen to the glorious music, and soak up everything that went on. I was shocked when two hours flew by and the pope was gone.
Christmas Eve was such a rare, special experience in Rome. How lucky we were to get tickets!
P.S., More presepio lore: apparently the baby Jesus is covered in Italian presepi until midnight on Christmas Eve, when he was born.