Memories from a Venetian Childhood

Michele Marcello grew up in Venice, where his family have lived for over a thousand years. He shared his recollections of Venetian Christmas.

“You knew winter was coming with the festival of San Martino on 11th November. Children would go out into the streets in the dark armed with saucepans, ladles, wooden spoons- anything that could make a noise. They would crash and bang their way through the calle in search of sweets- the Venetian version of trick or treat. You can still buy iced biscuits in the shape of San Martino and his horse at that time of year, but my mother used to bake them. In the pasticcerie, they used to make models out of cotognata (quince paste) decorated with silver balls for the horse’s harness and the saint’s sword. After that came Salute, on November 21st, candles and castradina (stewed hogget), and then Advent, which in my family meant the appearance of a very old wooden Nativity crib, the Presepe.  Everyone had a Presepe, not a Christmas tree; flower shops would sell fresh moss to decorate them, and my granny was very particular about the positioning of the pieces, slowly moving them into place as the days passed and Christmas approached. 

For me, the scent of holly and fir really sums up Christmas. The leaves and branches were used to decorate the house and then there would be fruit and greenery everywhere- silver bowls filled with mandarins, nuts, dried figs and holly berries. Christmas Eve dinner was delicious but very simple- crostini with fish, a baked sea bass with lemon and oil and a risotto with butter, saffron and caramelized onion. Midnight Mass was a solemn affair, all the ladies in gloves and black lace mantillas. Afterward we could eat our torrone, but my father made annual Christmas threats about the dentist…

Befana was more fun. The befana is a witchy old lady who delivers presents to good children and coal to naughty ones on the night of Epiphany. We would leave out a glass of sweet wine and a slice of pinza ( the Venetian pudding with raisins and fennel seeds), the way children do now for Father Christmas. In our stockings we’d find black lumps of sugar “coal”, oranges, pastiglia di Leone and other sweets. Christmas presents weren’t such a big deal then- there was one toyshop at the Ponte di Giocattoli, which has kept its name, though the shop is long gone. Meccano was the big gift, though I was thrilled one year with a mechanical teddy bear and a Chinese parasol…Christmas is such a huge affair now, and though in contrast it was a quieter time in Venice, I still remember it as very special- the same tastes, scents and colours-the clarity of that rhythm of rituals which had been celebrated for centuries.”