Christmas in Venice

Visiting Venice at this time of year will offer you an experience quite unlike the one you would have if you were to join the throngs of tourists in mid-summer

Local woman Sara Scarpa describes the atmosphere of a Venetian winter and shares with us some secrets about what Venetians will be enjoying in their city over the Christmas period…

I am awakened by a loud and annoying noise. I am confused, it seems like a nightmare, perhaps I am still sleeping. I get up and try to stretch my neck and I feel the pain. I walk towards the window to look outside but I cannot see anything apart from the thick white fog which is shrouding everything – the caigo (this is what we call the local fog in the Venetian dialect). The level of humidity is so high that it seems to penetrate my body, it is time to put aside the lightweight jacket I was wearing in London and swap into my Venetian clothing – my down-filled coat and a big scarf with a woolly hat. I will now blend in with my fellow Venetians.

Perhaps it is going to be a white Christmas, but of a different kind – the caigo makes Venice look more mysterious and ethereal than ever. Today the fog is combined with the acqua alta (high water) and the noise of the siren warning everyone is loud and clear. Venetians are used to it – from October to February it is quite common and they cope with it in their daily routine.

The image of Venice enveloped by fog is only one of the many you might encounter if you visit in December. Don’t expect the traditional white Christmas as it very rarely snows – only a couple of times since I was born! Often, it is crispy cold and sunny and you can see Venice in detail – the palaces and the churches in definition, the smooth and lustrous marble, the colourful reflections on the canals which look like paintings on water. You can see the city with a theatrical background – the perfectly sculpted Dolomites covered by snow against the bluest sky. The winter months in the Lagoon show Venice in a different light, quite literally.

On the contrary however, when, like today, the caigo falls on Venice, everything loses definition; you become enshrouded in an enchanting and almost mythical environment where you, along with the grandeur of the palaces, are cloaked in mystery.

Whatever the weather, it is during winter that you get to know this “beautiful woman” best. I once read that it is only in this period of the year that you can see “her” with no make up on. I completely agree, as within this season you witness the real Venice, the city Venetians reclaim from the thousands of visitors during a special few months. The queue to get on a gondola disappears and even the endless rows of people lining up to get a glimpse of the Basilica’s mosaics gets much shorter. Walking along the meandering calli and crossing the bridges becomes far easier and stress free. You can even take a seat on the vaporetto and – assuming that you are wearing the same warm gear as the locals – enjoy your boat ride!

Obviously, there is more to all these advantages. Venice’s atmosphere is magical during the festive period with Christmas lights shimmering across canals, decorations in the pretty shop windows and of course, the true incense of Christmas spilling out onto the calli – Italian cooking! If you have never been to Venice for Christmas, be prepared, as it is very different from its British or American version. I am not saying that the Christmas spirit is not present and people are not excited, quite the opposite. Celebrations, however, are not ostentatious and you will not find the flashy decorations and Christmas music playing loud in every shop and at every corner. All the locals are busy preparing for the events, which means shopping – and lots of it – but, mainly, spending time together with their family. Being with the family is so important that there is even a way of saying “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” (“Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you wish”).

The lights are not everywhere but the ones over Rialto bridge and under the arcades of the Procuratie in Saint Mark’s Square definitely make up for the shortage and create an enchanting setting. A big tree in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini is the most popular destination for children together with the ice rink in San Polo. Traditionally, parents take their children to see the nativity scenes displayed in the many churches around the city. One of the best examples is the one in the stunning church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Every year, on the afternoon of the 26th of December, a free concert takes place in this church. It is only one of the many concerts that the city offers in different venues throughout this month.

During the festive season there are also some interesting regattas, such as the regatta of the Santas and the one of the Befane (the Befana is the good old witch who, on the night of the 5th of January, flies on her broomstick and fills in children’s stockings with sweets or coal depending on whether they have been good or naughty).

The festive atmosphere is definitely strongest at the Rialto market the mornings before Christmas – all the locals are trying to get the freshest fish for the Cenone della Vigilia (Christmas Eve dinner) – eel traditionally but, nowadays, lobster and baccalà are much more popular. The meal is usually based on fish and vegetables, in keeping with most dinners being served the day before any religious celebration, when you are meant to “eat lean” in order to purify your body. However, as you might guess, being an Italian meal it is not as lean as it should be!

After Christmas Eve dinner, one experience that you really must not miss out on is Midnight Mass in Saint Mark’s Basilica. Here, in a solemn atmosphere, surrounded by stunning gold mosaics and by their reflections which are enhanced even more by candlelight, you will find the real Christmas spirit. After Mass, in the early hours of the morning, it is tradition to have another slice of panettone or pandoro (if you don’t like dried fruit) with a glass of Prosecco straight from the heart of the Veneto region, just before heading to bed.

After having recovered from your not-so-light dinner, on Christmas morning you should get ready for the brodo con tortellini (meat-filled pasta with broth) followed by meat and many other delicacies. To follow more panettone, of course, and (as if it was not enough) some chunks of mandorlato (nougat)!

So, if you want to really get to know Venice intimately then do visit the city at Christmas when you can immerse yourself in the freedom and mystery of this beautiful City, free from the hordes of summer visitors. Do remember to wrap yourself in impenetrable winter clothes, wander among the calli, indulge in food and wine and treat yourself to a thick hot chocolate in between meals to warm you up!

Photos by Iain Reid