This family swore off exchanging presents (hallelujah!) and gave themselves the biggest and best Christmas gift of all. No wrapping necessary.
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.
Due east is our next destination: the Piazza Navona Christmas festival. In between the square’s three Baroque fountains are carnival games and vendors hawking spicy sausages; small-scale nativity figures; and burlap-and-straw renditions of the witch La Befana, said to race around on a broomstick at Epiphany, dropping down chimneys to leave candy or lumps of coal. Roving Santas twist balloons into animal shapes, and a finger puppeteer makes his digits dance to Michael Jackson’s "Beat It." Tacky, but the fact that it’s mostly Italians sharing in the merriment makes it all the more fun for us. Hannah and Daniel try to outdo each other pitching balls at a pyramid of dented cans, and I buy black sweets shaped like coal. A thick sugary scent draws us to a vendor with flat doughnuts called fritelle that must be a foot across—the Italian equivalent of funnel cake. By now it’s dusk. Making one final stop, for roasted chestnuts, we stroll back to our hotel, handing around the brown paper cone of hot nuggets as we pass through streets strung with white pinpoint lights.
Although i’ve read that only 3 percent of Italians regularly attend church services these days, they do turn out for the big events on the ecclesiastical calendar—which explains the packed house for midnight mass at Santa Maria in Trastevere. At first I decide to skip the service, and burrow under the covers while Steve and the kids crunch across the courtyard pebbles to church. But the bells clang so insistently and hotel guests knock on each others’ doors so excitedly that sleep is out of the question. Dressing hastily, I make my way to the basilica, where mass is in full swing, candles dripping, incense burning, altar boys with baggy jeans and sneakers poking out from below their vestments moving hither and thither. I spot my crew on a riser to the left of the pulpit. "I’m glad you came," Steve whispers as I squeeze onto the bench between him and the kids, who are clearly zonked. Two fur coat– fattened mamas proudly offer up their babies for baptism. Practically the only word we can make out is bambino.
Christmas morning the whole city sleeps in. At breakfast, which is served late, slices of panettone—like challah with raisins, I tell Daniel—have been added to the buffet of crusty bread, honeydew, and sweet ricotta. I’d worried that Steve and the kids would miss opening presents, and though we’d all agreed that our trip would take the place of individual gifts, I’d stowed a few featherweight surprises in our bags—Hannah’s is a notice about an Italian cooking class for teens that I’ve signed her up for back home. But, miracle of miracles, Christmas ends up being a lovely, low-key day. We mosey to the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum in weather so warm and sunny we end up tying our jackets around our waists. The Colosseum is closed, so we circle the 2,000-year-old stadium where gladiators fought to their deaths. At Trattoria Quirino, a small, family-run restaurant a few blocks from our hotel, there’s a special Christmas menu. The kids and I can’t pass up the pasta—they stick with spaghetti Bolognese, and I try fettuccine in a creamy pepper sauce. Steve, the traditionalist, orders ham, which turns out to be prosciutto fanned out on the plate, and, like everything else we eat in Rome, astonishingly good.
Our culinary, not to mention spiritual, adventures continue at Casa di Santa Brigida. A convent-cum-guesthouse across the river, it’s named for a Swedish saint who died here in 1373, and whose hip bone is enshrined in a reliquary on the premises. Sister Angelina, from India, greets us wearing a charcoal-gray habit, and issues us keys to two rooms with high ceilings and parquet floors—but no flat-screens. Yes, there’s a silver crucifix and needlepoint Madonna and Child over our twin beds; a priest occupies one of the breakfast tables; and when we head to the rooftop terrace we pass the nuns’ ghostly slips hanging out to dry. But in other ways the convent is actually not so different from any number of comfortable little pensiones.
And it’s certainly well situated—just off the alluring Piazza Farnese with its Renaissance palazzo partly designed by Michelangelo. We’re a block from the Campo de’ Fiori, which has a bustling open-air market and a fabulous bakery, Antico Forno, where there’s always a lunchtime crush at the take-out pizza counter, with everyone jostling for their slice of bianco (no sauce), rosa (no cheese), or mozzarella (plenty of both). A short walk away is Da Baffetto, a popular, boisterous pizzeria named for the mustachioed owner who controls the door, opening it and shouting "Due!" or "Quattro!" to those waiting in line, after which the lucky party sails in. And we’re not far from Giolitti, the old-fashioned gelato parlor near the Piazza Colonna, where servers in white jackets with gold-braid epaulets work at lightning speed scooping cones of amaretto, mandarino, and stracciatella.
We hit the glorious Pantheon, built by Hadrian in the first century as a temple to the gods and converted to a church after the Roman Empire became Christianized. Indeed, we see plenty of church art: Michelangelo’s 1521 statue of Christ carrying his cross, at the austere Santa Maria Sopra Minerva; our first luminous Caravaggios, at Santa Maria del Popolo. The Cripta dei Cappuccini is religious art of an altogether different sort. In this spookily beautiful series of vaulted rooms, walls and ceilings are completely covered with intricate garlands, arches, and even chandeliers—all composed of deceased monks’ jaws, ribs, shoulder blades, and skulls. Wide-eyed, Daniel reads the sign in the last room: what you are now we used to be, what we are now you will be.
Even outings that start out secular end up rounding back to the church. The Villa Borghese gardens, the city’s beloved central park—where we watch boccie players and pedal a four-seat rental bike—is the former estate of a pleasure-loving cardinal who was a nephew of a pope. Daniel falls into a soccer game with some Italian boys, while Hannah and I check out the museum that occupies the cardinal’s white villa. We cruise by Caravaggios, Raphaels, and Titians, then stop dead in our tracks before Bernini’s amazing sculpture of Daphne turning into a tree to flee Apollo’s clutches.
If the church in rome is inescapable, you have to seek out Jewish Rome, which is concentrated in an area known as the Ghetto Vecchio. Our convent puts us within easy walking distance of this gritty collection of kosher butchers, Judaica shops, and restaurants specializing in Roman-Jewish cuisine. The most prominent structure is the square-domed Great Synagogue. An enormous oil-lit menorah stands outside the 1904 building the day we take an English-speaking tour and learn about the history of Jews in Rome.
They arrived as early as the second century B.C., and over the years their status fluctuated, depending upon the leanings of the pope in power—until, in 1555, Pope Paul IV cracked down, decreeing that they should be confined to a tiny walled area. Jews lived for over three centuries here in the Ghetto, the men allowed out at sunrise to practice the two professions they were permitted—money-lending and the sale of second-hand clothes—but required to return by sunset, when the gates were locked from the outside. Finally, in 1870, the walls were demolished and Jews were granted the same rights as other citizens—only to face Mussolini and World War II less than a century later .
Although few of the city’s 15,000 Jews live in this area today, it’s a magnet for roots-seekers like me. At Pasticceria il Boccione, a hole-in-the-wall bakery in a decrepit medieval building chiseled with Latin words, I buy nutty, cinnamony biscotti and a sloppy slice of luscious cherry-and-ricotta torte that in itself is reason to visit the Ghetto.
Our favorite meal of all is at the Ghetto’s tiny, hectic Sora Margherita, which we visit toward the end of our stay. We wait for over an hour, then we’re finally seated at one of the crammed- together tables and issued membership cards—the restaurant is a club of sorts; to eat here you first have to join, which involves filling out a form, after which a man in a tiny closet just inside the front door records the information by hand in a large ledger. I order buttery baccalà (codfish), a traditional Jewish dish. When our food comes, one of the owners, seeing that Steve hasn’t properly stirred his agnoletti into his meat sauce, bustles over and does it for him—a motherly gesture that makes us feel we belong.
In fact, Rome itself, with everything it offers both persuasions in our family, has made all of us feel at home. No, I didn’t convert, but I’m certainly sold on the idea of mixed families like ours dealing with the December dilemma by taking off on vacation. And, as a result of our trip, I feel more at peace with the two religions coexisting in our family. At Sora Margherita, we’d ordered both the regular Roman and the Roman-Jewish (alla giudea) versions of artichokes. The former is cooked in oil and garlic until soft and silky; for the latter, the whole bulb is dropped in bubbling oil until it turns crisp, the petals curling so they’re easy to pluck. The restaurant’s rendition arrived looking like a bronze cast of an exotic flower. The four of us decided we liked both. And, for our family, that felt just right.
Jane Margolies is the executive editor of T+L Family.
Small electric buses run from the Gianicolo Hill in Trastevere to Via Veneto on the 116 line. Sized for the Centro’s narrow streets, they pass through the Campo, Piazza Colonna, and the Villa Borghese gardens. Buy tickets from a tabacchi—they’re just one euro.
Play all day
At the Villa Borghese gardens you can rent a four-seater bike, join a pickup soccer game, and slip in an art history lesson at the Galleria Borghese (galleriaborghese.it—make reservations online, by phone, or through your hotel’s concierge).
Your kids will absolutely never be at a loss for something desirable to eat. After they’ve had their fill of pizza, pasta, and gelato, discover arancini (chewy fistfuls of rice, mozzarella, and sometimes minced meat and peas, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried). Get ’em to go at Franchi (200/204 Via Cola di Rienzo), an upscale deli not far from St. Peter’s.
Hire an insider
Former hotel concierge Antonio Barbieri’s recently launched outfit, Concierge in Rome (39-06/9727-6353; conciergeinrome.com; con-sultation fees from $138), can organize custom guided tours (by foot, horse and carriage, or golf cart); score tickets for private visits to the Vatican; and lead you on the ultimate shopping odyssey.
December temperatures in Rome hover in the 40’s and 50’s, and it almost never snows. We brought down jackets and at times were glad to have them, but on some sunny after-noons all we needed were sweaters. While Romans don’t exactly clear out around the holidays, many do head to the countryside. (A burglar alarm went off for almost 24 hours across the street from our convent—clearly, no one was home.) Many of the people in town around the holidays are Italians from other parts of the country—like you, they’re here to absorb La Dolce Vita.
Where to Stay
Hotel Santa Maria
Junior suites get you a room with a queen- size bed and a second with two twins—ideal for a family of four.
2 Vicolo del Piede; 39-06/589-4626; hotelsantamaria.info; doubles from $225, junior suites from $355, including breakfast.
Casa di Santa Brigida
96 Piazza Farnese, (entrance at 54 Via Mon Serrato); 39-06/ 6889-2596; twin-bed doubles from $262, including breakfast.
A hip, refurbished old hotel—with an outdoor pool, and an indoor one in the works—just outside the Borghese gardens.
15 Via Ulisse Aldrovandi; 39-06/322-3993; aldrovandi.com; doubles from $668.
Located right on the Spanish Steps, with kitchenettes in most of the quarters.
20 Piazza di Spagna; 39-06/6938-0176; internazionaledomus.it; rooms with four beds from $368.
For other lodging options geared to families, see ciaobambino.com.
Where to Eat
After filling up at our hotel’s breakfast buffet, we often didn’t need a sit-down lunch. Take-out pizza (here, sliced from long rectangular pies, folded over, wrapped in paper, and sold by the kilo), rice balls, clemen-tines, and gelato tided us over until dinnertime.
Fabulous bakery with a pizza counter.
22 Piazza Campo de’ Fiori; 39-06/6880-6662.
Franco e Cristina
A wildly busy pizza place in the Ghetto Vecchio.
5 Via del Portico d’Ottavia; 39-06/687-9262.
A tiny, packed trattoria in the Ghetto Vecchio. 300 Piazza delle Cinque Scole; 39-06/687-4216;
Lunch for four $62.
Il Gelato di San Crispino
Around the corner from the Trevi Fountain.
42 Via della Panetteria; 39-06/679-3924.
Famous gelato parlor near the Piazza Colonna.
40 Via Uffici del Vicaro; 39-06/699-1243.
Pasticceria il Boccione
Jewish sweets such as torta de ricotta.
1 Via del Portico d’Ottavia; 39-06/687-8637.
Bustling dinner-only pizza spot off the Campo de’ Fiori.
114 Via del Governo Vecchio; 39-06/686-1617; dinner for four $56.
A high-ceilinged restaurant in a Ghetto Vecchio apartment house. Order the artichokes alla giudea. After taking her first taste, Hannah declared: "I’d choose this over french fries any day."
38 Via S. Maria dei Calderari; 39-06/686-8377; dinner for four $82.