Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, also known as Midnight Mass or Natale del Signore, is one of the most unique and exclusive events you can attend in Rome.
Even though there is an annual broadcast from the Vatican, which allows faithful from around the world to view the pageantry of the mass from the comfort of their own homes, nothing compares to going to mass at the Vatican on one of its most sacred holidays.
The occasion is a festive one, an evening that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and, by extension, the birth of the Catholic Church. There are hymns, made transcendent thanks to the vast interior acoustics of the 16th-century basilica. The Pope leads prayers in Latin. And the church itself is a marvel, with Baroque statues, golden decorations, and St. Peter’s dome all vying for attention throughout the ceremony.
Vatican Christmas Eve Mass 2020
In 2020, all Christmas liturgies will be celebrated privately, with a limited number of people, and live-streamed to the public. Pope Francis has also announced that Christmas Eve Mass will start earlier this year — starting at 7:30 p.m. Central European Time instead of 9:30 p.m. CET — so that worshippers can make it home in time before the coronavirus curfew.
Does Midnight Mass Start at Midnight?
The first thing you need to know about midnight mass is that it does not start at midnight. Instead, it typically begins at 9:30 p.m. and ends around midnight. If you have small kids, this is a late start. But not as late as starting at midnight!
In 2020, “Midnight Mass” will start at 7:30 p.m. Central European Time to comply with Italy’s 10 p.m. coronavirus curfew.
How to Get Tickets to Midnight Mass at the Vatican
Tickets are free, but they must be reserved starting in November. A limited number of tickets, combined with the fact that they are usually not made available until the beginning of November, makes planning a bit of a challenge.
Many attendees are able to come by tickets through their local churches. So, if you have one of those, start there. Otherwise, you will need to book tickets by fax. Yes, fax. Try not to grumble about it.
Detailed instructions for requesting, confirming, and picking up tickets for masses and audiences at the Vatican is available from the Prefecture of the Papal Household, also known as the Prefettura.
7 Practical Tips for Attending Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s
- Dress Nicely But Don’t Stress Out About It. We donned our church clothes for Midnight Mass, but there is no dress code. Some went in jeans, and that was ok. The church is supposed to be a place for all.
- Get There Early. We arrived around 6 p.m. in order to get a decent place in line and get through the metal detectors. Doors to the basilica opened at 7.
- Choose Your Seat Wisely. Seating is first come, first served, so you want to be smart about where you sit. If the front rows have already begun to fill up, you’ll do better choosing a seat on the aisle further back than in a middle seat near the front. The seats in the last rows are also practical, as you can more easily see the Pope entering and exiting the church and you can more easily exit when the mass is over.
- You Will Do a Lot of Waiting. Bring Some reading material and/or a battery pack for your phone. You may also wish to bring (preferably non-liquid) snacks for kids. The security guards allowed small snacks and water when we passed through, but rules may change at any time.
- Kids Will Get Tired. Since the mass starts at 9:30 pm, small kids will get sleepy fast. Let them sleep and consider bringing a small blanket for them.
- Bring Your Good Camera. At the time of my visit and as of this writing, photography is allowed in St. Peter’s Basilica during Christmas Eve mass. In fact, it feels a bit like a paparazzi event for parts of the ceremony. If you have a good camera, especially one with a zoom lens, bring it. If you have a smartphone camera, take burst photos so you can hopefully come away with a good one (or a fun gif like the one I made below!)
- Figure Out Your Transportation/Route Home Beforehand. Only God knows why the Rome Metro typically stops running early on Christmas Eve. Yes, the Metro workers deserve to have a holiday, too. But it is common to find yourself stranded when you come out of Midnight Mass and there’s neither an open subway nor an available taxi. We ended up walking part of the way home after Christmas Eve mass, which would have been easier had I been wearing more sensible shoes (see tip #1, above).
Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica Video
Finally, for your viewing pleasure, is the full-length video of the last Midnight Mass celebrated at the Vatican (in 2019). I sincerely hope you get a chance to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience in person.