My husband is a church-going Catholic, I’m a lackadaisical Jew, and even though we try to embrace both faiths, we’ve always had our little difficulties around the winter holidays. Steve bides his time while our children—Hannah, 14, and Daniel, 10—and I light the menorah. And I brace myself for Christmas, the more dazzling of the back-to-back holidays and the one I’ve always feared would tip our kids into the Catholic camp. Initially, we spent the big day with Steve’s extended family, but after a decade of that schlep we were ready to try something new. And so we headed to our cabin in the Catskills: snowdrifts outside and the four of us snuggled in front of the fireplace. But Steve, who grew up in a tightly knit Irish-Catholic neighborhood, felt bereft. "I want to be around other people who are celebrating Christmas," he said morosely.
Which is how I hit upon the idea of going to Rome. After all, what could be more Christmasy than a crusade to the Pope’s home turf?Steve and I had traveled around Italy years before and were longing to return. When a colleague in Italy told me about a hotel in a converted 17th-century Roman cloister, and a friend raved about a convent that takes paying guests, our trip began to seem preordained. Delving further, I discovered that the Eternal City has the oldest Jewish population in Europe. Our six-day journey would double as a spiritual quest: while Steve reveled in his religion, I’d investigate my own. As for the kids, they enthusiastically awaited what they saw as the Margolies-O’Grady mission to the land of pizza, pasta, and gelato. Our Roman holiday was on.
December 23: John Lennon is singing "and so this is Christmas" on the radio as our airport taxi twists and turns through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Trastevere and deposits us at the clay-roofed Hotel Santa Maria, our base for the next three days. I can imagine friars silently going about the pebbled courtyards, but there’s nothing monastic about our suite, with its two flat-screen TV’s and walls freshly stenciled with vines.
We are just as taken with Trastevere itself—located across the Tiber from the Centro, the city’s historic center—which retains the easy pace of a true Roman neighborhood. A family kicks a ball around the fountain in the main piazza, bordered by the Romanesque basilica Santa Maria, built on the site of a church where, some believe, the first mass was celebrated in the third or fourth century. Nearby, at an open-air food market, I fill my pockets with tiny glossy clementines—perfect for when the kids need some fuel to forge on. We climb to the top of Gianicolo Hill, and the city’s domes, bell towers, and terra-cotta rooftops spread out tantalizingly before us. Red-and-white Santas dangle from ocher apartment houses. Christmas here isn’t the commercial frenzy it is in the States, though some American traditions are clearly making inroads.
The following day, Christmas Eve, Hannah and I race back from a chilly early jaunt to the Porta Portese flea market—paintings of ancient ruins and shoe boxes of Vatican coins floating in a sea of leather handbags—so that we can make it to mass at Santa Maria in Trastevere. We run a gauntlet of women begging at the church door and enter the jewel-box interior just as the service is ending, the priests in burgundy-and-white robes parading down the aisle, sunlight streaming in through high windows and glinting on the gold, green, and red mosaics. "I’m hoping for a conversion on this trip," Steve quietly jokes to me as we inspect a white-marble statue of Saint Anthony, the patron of lost causes. Scribbled petitions on the back of store receipts, on pages torn from date books, even on yellow Post-its are heaped in Saint Anthony’s arms, tucked at his feet, and spilling onto the floor. The one that’s angled so that I can take a peek says, in Spanish, "God help my family, especially my wife."
Our pilgrimage to St. Peter’s is decidedly less intimate. We’d already ruled out joining the mob here at midnight—who wants to stand in the cold, craning our necks to catch the Pope on a large video screen set up in front of the basilica?Instead we arrive at the square in brilliant mid-afternoon. A Christmas tree decorated with silver balls and tinsel, another foreign interloper, towers over an elaborate nativity scene draped in netting to catch the coins of the faithful—one of the hundreds of presepi (crèches) that spring up in Rome every December. We attach ourselves to the throng shuffling past two security guards and a metal scanner and are swept inside the six-acre cathedral, which instantly swallows us up. The place is so vast I can’t imagine that any number of people could make it feel crowded. "So," Hannah says, sidling up to me. "You gonna convert?"
While guards try to maintain decorum on the ground floor—two of them shush a group of excited Japanese tourists snapping photos of each other in front of the yawning cavity—a giddy, almost fun-house atmosphere prevails as we make our way up to the lofty dome. We are among the hardy souls who decline to pay $11 each for the elevator and instead tromp up the 323 stairs. The spiraling wedge-shaped steps get ever tighter and narrower toward the cupola (claustrophobes, beware!). From the roof we can see the medieval walls that enclose Vatican City, which is, in fact, a sovereign city-state with its own postal system, tiny army—and automatic teller machines providing service in Latin.