VATICAN CITY -- Well before midnight, pilgrims are massing in the great square in front of St. Peter's Basilica.
Some swirl around the huge Christmas tree, brought from Austria. Others gather around the elaborate presepio, or creche, set up near the 85-foot-high Egyptian obelisk that stands in the center of the square.
It is Christmas Eve and soon Pope John Paul II will begin the traditional midnight Mass in St. Peter's.
This is a spectacle never to be forgotten. Resplendent in his red cape, the pope leads a procession of cardinals and bishops into the basilica, where as many as 20,000 worshipers may have gathered.
At the raised marble altar under Bernini's magnificent baldacchin -- the canopy over the altar supported by spiraled bronze columns -- the pope conducts the Mass that so many Americans have watched on television. This is no ordinary Mass. It is grand in scope; the multitude of red caps of the cardinals around the altar tell you that.
Colorful poinsettias ring the high altar; close around are members of the diplomatic corps and their spouses in formal attire. Voices of the choir reverberate under the enormous dome of St. Peter's, and when the hymns fade, the guttural voice of Pope John Paul reverberates through this great church as he celebrates the birth of the Christ child.
It is a stirring rite, repeated in Catholic churches all over the world that same night, but never as impressively as here, at one of Christendom's most revered sites.
After the ceremony, those who have gathered in the square take their turn. "Il Papa!" they chant as the pope moves from the basilica through the throng outside to visit the tree and the creche -- both innovations in the service that Pope John Paul II brought to the Vatican.
For many visitors, worshipers and spectators alike, attending this ceremony and seeing the pope up close is the highlight of a Christmastime visit to Rome. But the Vatican is an exceptional place to visit at any time of year. St. Peter's is one of the greatest churches in Christendom, with unmatched richness and aura. The Vatican houses an incredible treasury of art works in its museums, and the pope makes a public appearance at least twice a week when he is in Rome.
Few approaches are as impressive as the entry to the Vatican through the remarkable plaza built by Bernini in the 17th century. Though it is called a square, this double-colonnaded space is shaped like an enormous keyhole.
It is here that the pope holds his general audiences in the summer, and it is here that hundreds of thousands of people gather for special occasions, such as Easter morning or the naming of a new pope.
At first sight, the interior of the basilica does not seem as enormous as it is, but that is simply a matter of proportion and perspective. Certainly the dome does not seem 40 stories high. Few visitors realize that Bernini's baldacchino rises 80 feet above the altar. What appear to be child-sized cherubs decorating the holy water stoup are actually statues more than 6 feet high.
Best known of all the statues, of course, is Michelangelo's "Pieta," now shielded behind large glass panels after an extremist damaged it some years back. No other work in the basilica can match its exquisite lines and expressive features. Even more treasures -- really, an overwhelming number -- await visitors in the Vatican Museums. An astounding collection of statuary, paintings, frescoes, tapestries, furniture, antiquities and other works lines the rooms and corridors of the museums, which are so immense that four separate itineraries are suggested to visitors.
Four rooms in the main museum complex showcase the paintings of Raphael, and the painter's last work, the "Transfiguration," is found in the Pinocateca. Two ornately decorated wings with painted vaulted ceilings house the Vatican Library. A gallery as long as a football field is lined with early maps. Frescoes by Pinturicchio cover the walls and ceilings of the Borgia Apartments.
But the crowning glory is the Sistine Chapel, whose famous ceiling was painted by Michelangelo.
Casual visitors are not allowed in the rest of Vatican City, except for organized bus tours of the extensive gardens. In wintertime, these are given on Saturday mornings only.
On that tour, visitors might see the site of a building that has set off a controversy in Rome. It is a still-under-construction hotel for cardinals visiting the Vatican, which now has only 14 rooms for such visitors. Roman critics say the building will block their view of St. Peter's, but the Vatican, which is an independent country, is going ahead with it. Elsewhere in Rome, the main signs of Christmas are the creches or nativity scenes mounted in many squares and churches. Some are quite elaborate, with running water, piped-in carols, shooting stars and angels overhead.
Romans do not celebrate Christmas in the same way as Americans, so far fewer Christmas trees are seen. A number of stores, however, place potted trees outside their doors or put lights in curbside trees.
Gift-giving is not as pervasive as in the United States, and presents often are given more in connection with Epiphany (Jan. 6) than at Christmas. From Dec. 1 through Epiphany, booths in Piazza Navona sell toys, trinkets and decorations. "Post-Christmas" sales at stores do not begin until mid-January.
Christmas midnight Masses are held at many churches. At St. Peter's, tickets are required to attend the service conducted by the pope.
However, if you do not have friends in Rome, Christmas Day can be rather lonely. Many restaurants and other public facilities close, as families tend to stay home on the holiday.
Still, because of its status as the one of the great centers of Christendom, there's a special aura about Christmas in Rome that one doesn't feel in other big cities. It may no longer be true that all roads lead to Rome, but at this time of year, certainly all eyes turn to the Eternal City.