Giotto (1267-1337), Legend of St Francis, Institution of the Nativity, Assisi Basilica, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
All of Italy loves Advent and Christmas. But as a newcomer to Venice, this city’s celebration amazed me.
Our most popular symbol of Christmas, the nativity scene, came from Saint Francis of Assisi. He asked that Presepe (the nativity scene) be set up in a church before he preached. Now every church I’ve seen in Venice features its own nativity scene.
On Vigilia (Christmas Eve), we had a meal of capitone (eel) and vegetables (We avoid meat to purify our bodies before Christmas). Later that evening, we traveled by gondola to attend midnight mass. The nativity scene in front of the church featured live sheep, a donkey, and a mother with her new baby, playing the roles of Mary and Jesus. I didn’t envy them, sitting out in the cold! Church bells rang out at midnight, so everyone in the city, even snug in their beds, must have heard that Christmas had arrived.
Just after Christmas, on December 26th, we celebrated the Feast of Santo Stefano (Christianity’s first martyr, stoned to death), and visited nativity scenes at many churches.
And now, today is a double holiday: New Year’s Eve and the Feast of San Silvestro. I won’t be out to see it, but I hear that fireworks will brighten Piazza San Marco at midnight to usher in the New Year.
Buon anno (Happy New Year)!
Santa Lucia, by Benvenuto Tisi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGarofalo_-_Saint_Lucy_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
“Santa Lucia, il giorno più corto che ci sia” (Saint Lucia, the shortest day there is).
How lucky I was to be born on the Feast of Santa Lucia (even if it’s the shortest day of the year)! From that happy coincidence came the given name I love and the saint’s heroic heritage, as well as evening candlelight processions, bonfires, and the traditional delicacies of roast goose, fried cheese, and biscotti shaped like eyes.
Santa Lucia is the patron saint of the eyes. Old stories say her eyes were gouged out before she died, but my father says that’s not true. People call out, “Oh, Santa Lucia!” when they find something right in front of their nose, after searching for it.
Santa Lucia grew up in Syracuse, Sicily, and as a young girl carried food to fellow Christians hiding in the dark catacombs to escape Emperor Diocletian’s persecution. She herself suffered persecution when her betrothed denounced her as a Christian after she chose consecration to God over marriage.
The only sad thing about my birthday: Santa Lucia was martyred on December 13. But her shining example lights up Venice’s winter darkness and inspires me to live with her faith and courage.
Annunciation, by Jacopo Tintoretto, Art Museum, Bucharest, Romania, Public Domain http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATintoretto%2C_annunciazione%2C_01.JPG
On December 8th of every year I lived in Verona, I went to Mass and ate a special dinner to celebrate the conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
But here in Venice, devotion to Jesus’ mother lasts all year long! When I go outside, I see shrines to Mary in the corners of walkways, with votive lamps the neighbors keep burning in her honor. In every house, I see her picture. Venice’s top artists, Titian and Tintoretto, both painted portraits of the angel announcing to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. (For some strange reason, the scenery in those paintings looks just like Venice!) And in “Mary’s church,” Santa Maria Gloriosa, eight altars are dedicated to her.
So I wasn’t surprised today was a grand holiday in Venice, with feasts, concerts, and extra masses. But when church bells rang for the prayer, “Hail Mary,” I was shocked to watch sophisticated Venetians in elegant dress fall to their knees to honor Jesus’ mother, wherever they happened to be. How Venice Loves Mary!