Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Buon Natale, too


This year the students at the Francesco Morosini Naval School, aided and abetted by the chaplain, Don Gianni, put together a lagoon Nativity scene. It’s very cool that the Three Kings are arriving aboard a classic boat, a “sampierota.” They wisely left their camels behind, perhaps to leave space to bring everybody back to the mainland from this little sandbank after Epiphany.

Christmas this year (so far) has been the most subdued I’ve ever seen.  It’s not the spirit that is lacking, but the fundage.  I don’t need to remind you that yes, we have no money.

Christmas lights no longer festoon via Garibaldi, though a few indomitable individuals have put up some illumination.  I salute them. They obviously have nothing to fear from the energy companies.

And speaking of indomitable, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the neighborhood pastry-wizard has outdone himself in widening the space between size and price in his festive offerings.  An ingenious little creation (note the use of the word “little”) of chocolate shavings and lumps of torrone, representing an Alpine village — the sort of thing which usually adorns a liquor-and-mascarpone-sodden cake — is now being offered without the cake.  For the same inflated price.  If I were to want to spend 30 euros ($40) for a plate of chocolate fragments, I would…. No, I wouldn’t, actually. If I had 30 euros to spend on a present, I’d give somebody a batch of bees via the Heifer Project.  At least that way the gift would propagate.  No propagation powers yet discovered in the world of ostentatious confections. End of sermon.

An example of the minimalist approach to the Christmas cake. He has made a version which costs “only” 30 euros, but you see the style. It’s on a cardboard base about the size of a luncheon plate, if anybody uses those anymore. Not small, but not big, either. Not 30-euros big, in any case.

This is what a normal, standard-issue Christmas cake looks like. True, you can’t eat much of it, and what you do eat sort of haunts you for hours. But at least you’re getting something in return for your cash.

Day before yesterday, feeling the onset of the big day, we had a party at our rowing club.  It was great.  Because the tornado last June destroyed our clubhouse, we now cling to the edge of the lagoon with our boats parked under two big tents, with a container serving as locker room, kitchen, and bathroom. The kind of container they give to earthquake survivors.  It works, but it’s not a long-term plan.

A table, panettone and wine, and people: It’s a party! The fog invited itself.

Just to give an idea of the atmosphere. We’ve had more fog than high water so far this year by a factor of at least ten, and fog is arguably more dangerous than acqua alta to most activities (I’m thinking of fatal collisions, and also getting lost). But fog just doesn’t seem to excite reporters in the same way.

It was a modest, Bob-Cratchity sort of celebration but the most important elements were there:  Fizzy wine (not the usual prosecco, but somebody’s home-bottled lambrusco), panettone and pandoro (my favorite, as is anything involving extra sugar), and smiling people. The frigid foggy wind was thrown in at no extra cost.

Another bonus was having time to hang around with some of the old guys and hear them geeze about the old days.  I pick up unexpected bits of lore this way.  This time I learned why gondoliers hate the nickname “pasta e oca” (pasta and goose).

Lino (whose grandfather was a gondolier, as is his son) says that they ate pasta and goose because they’ve always been “grandoni” — that is, tending toward the grandiose.  Someone added, however, that in his opinion they hated being called this nickname because the dish (which I’ve never tried) is a sort of viscid, mucilaginous preparation which is so revolting it makes you want to barf.  As it was told to me.

In any case, the preferred rejoinder to “Hey, pasta e oca!'” is “And yo’ mama gets the neck!”

Christmas spirit comes in all shapes and sizes, and I liked our standing-around-outside-in-the-freezing-soggy-air version.  There weren’t very many of us, but it didn’t matter.  This would be the only point on which I might agree with the pastry-shark.  When it comes to a festa, it’s not about quantity.

So auguri (ow-GOOR-ee), as we say here.  Technically, “good auguries.”  We no longer practice divination by studying the liver of sacrificial animals, or the flight of birds, so I’ll translate this as “Good wishes!”

Our irrepressible neighbors along the canal have thrown caution somewhere — to the wind, or into the water– and favored us with all these sparkles.  In these purlieus, the Christmas star leads , not to the Baby Jesus, but to the laundry on the line.

Heading out to do some errands this morning, I came across a festive garbage collector. He turned the corner about ten seconds ahead of me, and when I turned it he was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere. I’m thinking Santa has turned his sleigh in and is working with the ecological operator’s wagon.

Near San Giovanni Crisostomo, I came across a kiosk selling a vast assortment of figurines for your own Nativity set at home. In addition to the Holy Family, shepherds, angel, ox, ass, and Three Kings, you could have a woodcutter, with wood.

Here is a couple eating pizza, something I’ve always felt that Nativity scenes lacked. And a butcher with large sections of just-cut-up animals.

The sign says this woman is a “battipanni,” or rug-beater, though technically the battipanni referred to the woven wood paddle she’d use to pound the dust out of the carpets. Just so you know. Still, an excellent person to have in your Christmas creche, what with all the swaddling cloths and probably saddle cloths too, for the donkey.

A tailor would be an excellent person to have on the team; here she’s busy making shirts.

Someone to re-upholster your sofa or ottoman. You could get everything in your house fixed up by Epiphany, at this rate.


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Categories : Venetian-ness


  1. Debi says:

    Merry Christmas Erla!! I hope you had a great day!! and had some cake!! 🙂

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      The day was great, thanks. We’ve long since given up on the cake, but strudel works fine for us. We buy the frozen supermarket variety. No Alpine villages, but that’s not a serious flaw. How’s that for the Christmas spirit??

  2. Susie L says:

    I was strolling along Via Garibaldi yesterday and I was so disappointed there were no lights this year. But the Luna Park certainly looked festive.

    Living in San Francisco, I am certainly used to fog, but the SF version of la nebbia is child’s play compared to the Venetion version we are having now! Saturday was positively bone chilling along the Zattere.


  3. Jo says:

    Tanti Auguri e Buon Anno

    Thank you for your wonderful blog that keeps me in touch with Venice!

    Best wishes for 2013!

  4. Andrew says:

    I love the verb ‘to geeze’. I’m going to use it sometime but will credit you with its discovery, Erla. Lovely blog. Best wishes for a very happy New Year.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Thank you so much — I reciprocate the wishes for the New Year. I’d like to take credit for “to geeze,” but honesty compels me to reveal that I first heard it (actually, have only heard it) from my friend Alison Hughes in Virginia. Knowing her, it’s highly likely that she is the originator. Awkward for you to say “a friend of a friend” as attribution — I just want the credit to go where it’s due, seeing how rarely that happens in this life.

  5. annie andrighetto says:

    I really enjoy your posts…My parents were Veneziani and I still have relatives in the Veneto. I liked seeing all the interesting Nativity additions…but I have yet to see a gondola with Santa Claus or the Befana. Have you seen them? I would love to have one or both..grazie

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Thank you for writing — I love to hear from farflung Venetians. No, I haven’t seen a Santa in a gondola or a Befana in the Nativity scene figurines. I don’t follow this craft/business at all. It’s remotely possible that something like this might be available at the North Pole (so to speak) of Nativity statuettes, which is Naples — specifically, the shops lining the street of San Gregorio Armeno. I’ve been there in the distant past, and the assortment is overwhelming. (If you’d like to have George Clooney approaching the manger, I’ll bet somebody could help you.) In any case, why not go to Google and enter (as I just did): “napoli presepe san gregorio armeno” and see what you can dig up in the flood of material that comes forth?