Venice at Christmas — it sounds as if the entire city ought to be refulgent with gleaming and sparkling, as if every fragment of its shattered splendor should come together and shine in an unearthly and glorious way.
Yes, it does seem that it ought to be that way.
Instead, scattered efforts at decoration all around the city make bright flickers, some bigger, some smaller, that don’t come together in any coherent way. Venice is littered with Nativity scenes, in paintings, in sculpture, not to mention other aspects of the Christmas story — the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, and even the Massacre of the Innocents –yet the general attitude toward Christmas is not excessively devout. It remains essentially a domestic holiday and I suppose that ought to translate, if depicted accurately today, into scenes of Mary in the kitchen wrestling with something heavy in the oven while Baby Jesus is busy trying to teach the cat how to swim, or of them looking desperately, not for a room at the inn, but for a place to park at the mall. Meaning no disrespect.
Little old people, as everywhere, are being wrangled into some extended-family configuration; and the children are, I think, essentially like children everywhere — eyes and spirits fixed, not on the Star, but on the imminent deluge of presents. And not brought by kings or wise men, but laid on by squadrons of adoring relatives, even in times like these.
Perhaps there are gala balls being held in palaces, but my sense is that anybody with a palace is probably already at Cortina.
Still, the framework remains the same, at least in our little hovel: Christmas Eve means risotto of go’ and roasted eel, the ripping open of the presents, midnight mass, the singing of “You Descend from Heaven,” and slicing the panettone at midnight and popping the prosecco.
Christmas Day means the big mass at San Marco, some fabulous meaty lunch, then either sleeping on the sofa or visiting relatives, then more eating, and more sleeping.
The day after Christmas — the feast of Santo Stefano — is another holiday. More gorging on food, this time with all of Lino’s family.
One quaint aspect of this holiday is that there are no newspapers for two days because the journalists and editors and printers don’t work on Christmas Eve and Christmas. This is an antiquated practice that is even more exotic than bearing in the boar’s-head and drinking wassail. Newspapers in the rest of the world come out as usual, but here, for some reason (and I do not believe it’s because the entire category wants to spend two whole days in church) the newspaper-producers just don’t work on Christmas.
To which I say: Who notices or cares? The broadcast journalists are working as usual, and the news continues to flow to us in an unbroken stream via the television and the Internet. But somehow print journalists feel themselves to be special, which, I presume, is fostered and sustained by the unions. And then they complain that readership is falling.
But this is normal.
What is going to be abnormal this year for the holidays is: Minimal garbage collection. Of any sort, whether recyclable (there’s a weekly schedule for the different types of material) or otherwise (clam shells, coffee grounds, orange peels, fishbones, half-eaten cupcakes, wine bottles, etc.). And this will last for two days: Christmas Day, and Santo Stefano.
Two days with no garbage collection — this is a startling innovation in the festal folkways, especially in a city which purports to be world-class, or somewhere near it, and during a period which could be described as garbage-intensive.
The Gazzettino conveys the explanation given by the garbage company, which is nothing more than an arm of the city government with a different name: The garbage collectors are all going to be too busy keeping the streets clean to have time also to collect the bags which are daily left outside the doors of houses and shops.
The very best part is that, given this fact, the garbage company respectfully requests the good citizens to refrain from putting their bags of refuse outside for two days. So the streets can be neat and tidy. And the interiors of the houses and stores can become kitchen middens.
This is only moderately annoying to us, but for families with children, it’s inconceivable. I can tell you right now, sitting here with my eyes closed, that the streets are going to be FULL of bags of garbage. Or maybe there will be a mass reversion to the Old Way, which involves a big splash.
To review: We are requested to not clutter the streets because the trash-teams are going to be busy keeping the streets clean. But if we’re not putting out trash, why do the streets need to be cleaned? It’s like the definition of chutzpah: First you kill your parents, then you plead for clemency from the court because you’re an orphan.
I tell you, sometimes life in the most beautiful in the world makes my head hurt.
But let us return to the reason for the season, as they say. Here is a small assortment of glimpses of Venice preparing for Christmas. But of course, the most beautiful scenes of all are arranged and decorated and illuminated where you’ll never see them: In each person’s heart. Compared to which glass angels and marzipan cake and all the strings of lights ever plugged in are as nothing.