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The Christmas Season in Venice

Ruth L. Edenbaum

Christmas in Venice is very different from Christmas in the US - at least in the New York/New Jersey area. There is not the massive amount of decorating of houses and windows that exists at home, and Santa Claus, though present in many delightful ways, is a less dominant figure than in the States.

I have seen an inflatable Santa attached to the mast of a sail boat, red Santa caps trimmed with white fur atop the mooring poles of the Gritti Palace, and the two stone lions who guard the door at the Hotel Ala wearing Santa hats and white beards. From time to time a brightly painted red boat can be seen carrying Santa down the canal, but my favorite Santa sight was the group of 8 or 10 Santas climbing into a pair of gondolas near the Rialto several years ago.

We do spy Christmas trees through the windows of  Palazzos along the canal, on balconies, and many campos have an outdoor tree strung with lights. We also see candles or fairy lights in windows and wrapped around balconies and window boxes. Trees seem to be small or tall and quite skinny. Since they are usually toted home in small boats or carried, and then carried or hoisted up several flights of stairs, size or lack thereof becomes an important factor in choosing a tree. Disposing of Christmas trees in Venice is a highly specialized field, almost a science. Stores and shops may wrap purchases in Christmas paper, and may sport some holiday decorations, but there is not the massive overhaul of decor nor does Christmas music blare through loud speakers; this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Holidays of the Christmas Season

The Christmas season picks up steam during Advent, and then has three high points:

  • Natale and San Stefano: Christmas Eve and Day, and the day after
  • San Silvestro and Capo d'Anno: New Year's Eve and Day
  • Epifania/Befana: The Epiphany

The first two occasions are not that different from their stateside equivalents, except that in Venice, San Stefano - the day after Christmas - is observed too, much as Boxing Day is a holiday in England. Epifania - when the Befana, the good witch comes to bring children their presents - is not much celebrated in the US, but in Venice it is a major celebration. Major religious celebrations mean most museums, some restaurants, and anything connected with the church will be completely closed.

Weather

Weather varies much as it does in the Northeastern US. There are lots of gray cloudy days with mild temperatures, occasional rain and two types of sunny days. Sometimes the sunshine is limpid and the day is balmy; other times, under a brilliant blue sky, the air is crystal clear and icy cold; on these days Venice is so perfectly reflected in the water that surrounds her it is easy to mistake one world for the other.

Concerts During the Christmas Season

The Christmas services in the different churches, especially the larger ones, are well worth seeing whatever your religion is. The music is magnificent. All through the Christmas season there are lots of concerts - some free, some not. They are written up in various newsletters and newspapers with bigger ones listed in the International Herald Tribune. Often the best way to find out what concerts will be held when and where is simply to study the large posters all over the city. Sometimes they go up weeks in advance and sometimes just a few days, but all the information you need is there.

Every 26 December, the Frari in San Polo offers a free concert at about 4:00 PM. Some years it is a children's choir, others feature solo singers or instrumentalists. The church itself is filled with magnificent art including Titian's Assumption of the Virgin. The Frari is also one of the coldest churches in Venice so dress warmly. Other churches have concerts for which you can buy tickets ahead of time or at the door. San Bartolomeo at the foot of the Rialto Bridge used to offer wonderful concerts almost every night, but the deconsecrated church which was also a museum for antique instruments including an Amati Bass has been reconsecrated. The museum and concerts are now moved to the Church of San Vitale in Campo San Stefano. In addition to the concerts and musical instruments, the recently restored San Vitale is the home to a magnificent Carpaccio which hangs over the altar. While the church was being restored, the Carpaccio hung in San Stefano, and many guide books still list it as being there.

La Pieta, Vivaldi's Church on the Riva degli Schiavone also has frequent concerts, but be careful where you sit. The pews are not designed for comfort; head for one of the chairs even if it means you are on the side or further in the rear. Ca Rezzonico, Palazzo Moncenigo and the Scuola San Rocco also offer concerts as do other small museums and churches. Be sure to check the dates on the posters on the walls all over Venice since many of them are on display long after the concerts are over.

Natale and San Stefano (Christmas)

During the days leading up to and immediately after Natale, there are Christmas markets in the different campos and around the Rialto. Some offer antiques, others foods from all over Italy and still others the kind of goods you would buy for presents anywhere. I love to walk through the markets and see parents carrying children on their shoulders or in their arms. I remember one little girl with her brown eyes dancing under a red and white cap with blinking Christmas lights all around it. Then there was the man I saw from a distance with a giant Q-tip over his shoulder, which turned out, when they drew closer, to be a sleeping child in a white hooded snow suit.

I think fondly of Gianni, now retired, in our local pastry/coffee shop, which is now a dress store, surprising us with a gift of Christmas cookies made from his Nonna's recipe. And I can recall running to the window to watch the huge straw Nativity scene that glided majestically down the Canal to its resting place at the Rialto.

Nativity scenes are intrinsic to a Venetian Christmas. I have seen them in every church, often lighted and animated. Some nativity scenes take in far more than just the Christmas story, showing the entire breadth and scope of a village including all sorts of workers, home scenes and natural wonders portrayed around the stable and Madonna and child. One year the Scuola dei Carmini in Dorsoduro had a display of presepi which filled two rooms and ranged from simple nativity scenes made from clay and wood to more ornate ones culminating in an enormously complex and delicate model made from Murano glass.

While Venetians may not go crazy with Christmas decorations, the holiday spirit is alive and well. Wish someone in a shop or restaurant, or even a passerby in a calle,  Buon Natale, Buon Anno or Auguri; not only will you be rewarded with a big smile and a return of your holiday greeting, but they'll sound as though they really mean it.

Where to eat can occasionally be a problem during the holidays. Many restaurants close either from Christmas Eve or Day until mid-January or from New Year's (San Silvestro) until late January or even Carnevale. In Venice, as in much of Europe, the day following Christmas is a big holiday as is the day after New Year's. Sometimes it seems as though even more places are closed on 26 December than on the 25th. Hotels, of course, will be serving meals and there are plenty of regular restaurants from which to choose, but it is best to plan ahead and make a reservation for your Christmas Dinner.

San Silvestro and Capo d'Anno (New Year)

San Silvestro or New Year's Eve is a big deal. Restaurants offer huge feasts, and unlike many places in the States, many of them are incredible meals. They tend to be very expensive, consisting of many courses and all the wine you can drink. For the last several years we have gone to Antiche Carampane on San Silvestro. Before that we had treated ourselves to an elegant lunch and then had a home cooked dinner or pizza in our apartment.

Hotels will offer options of regular meals, pizza places will be open, and some small places may have a regular menu, but most restaurants go all out. Reservations are a must; meals start around 9:00 and run well past midnight. I would say that New Year's Day is by far the most difficult day on which to find an open restaurant. Again, plan ahead and remember restaurants connected to hotels, or locandas and osterias are probably the most likely ones to be serving dinner. Chinese restaurants are often open too.

Epifania/Befana (Epiphany)

On January 6th in Venice, there are Befana races on the Grand Canal, while in the surrounding countryside there are bonfires to burn the Befana. I never have really understood this since the Befana is a good witch who brings children presents. Now that Santa Claus has become a fixture in Italian culture the Befana's gifts are often limited to candy and sweets, but many Italian children get presents on both Christmas and Epiphany.

The Befana races were begun several years ago by the Bucintoro Rowing Club, the oldest club in Venice. The older members were bemoaning the fact that as they aged, younger members were winning all the races. They decided to have a race limited to the men who were fifty and older. Somehow once Epiphany was picked for the date, the idea of having the competitors dress as the Befana was just a small step further. Residents and visitors line the Rialto bridge and the fondamente along the Grand Canal to watch what appears to be dozens of elderly women dressed in long skirts and shawls energetically poling boats down from San Marco towards the Rialto bridge. The first boat to pass under the bridge gets to take down the giant stocking full of treats that has been hanging from the San Marco side of the Bridge. Women dressed as the Befana - the wives of the Bucintoro members - pass through the throngs handing out candy and other treats to the children. Santa Claus sometimes shows up in his special red boat. There is a band and an emcee who enthusiastically calls the finish of the race and introduces the winners to the cheering spectators.

Throughout most of the race, Canal traffic continues at its normal pace with vaporettos, water taxis and private pleasure boats milling about. One year, the President of the Bucintoro Club got tangled in his skirts and fell in the water. Santa Claus rowed over and rescued the Befana - nowhere except in Venice could you possibly see that!


Ruth Edenbaum is the co-author of Chow! Venice, Savoring the Food and Wine of La Serenissima. She lives in central New Jersey and spends more than two months a year in Venice. Ruth exhibits her photos on www.chowbellabooks.com.

© Ruth L. Edenbaum, 2004

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