Natale Bizantino – Celebrating Christmas, Venetian style

This is the Christmas Nonna Lina used to celebrate 50 years ago, and her thought about the holidays 2020:

This Christmas, life in Venice feels like a opening a window into the past, reliving simple and authentic times, and traditions long forgotten. The real Venice shines through, when 24 and 31 December were the most quiet nights of the year.

Because of their Byzantine origins, Venetians used to celebrate Christmas on 6 January, and the New Year on 01 March (more veneto). Of course, people are now celebrating on 24 and 25 December as well, but especially in Venice, the traditions of that other Christmas, l’Epifania, are still very much alive. Another, second Christmas is celebrated and only 50 years ago, this second Christmas feast, when la Befana brought little gifts to to children, meant much more to us than 24 December.

So in the past, 24 December was very quiet, and especially this year, it will be very similar to those forgotten times in the past. In “normal years”, just before Christmas Eve, the golden mosaics inside Basilica di San Marco are illuminated during the Concerto di Natale by Teatro La Fenice. This Christmas concert cannot take place in 2020 because of the lockdown restrictions, but we share a video of 2018 below for you to watch.

The real Venetian Christmas has very little to do with panettone and turkey, while of course, you’ll find them in Venice as well (and panettone will be flavored with cherries from Marostica, chestnuts and pistachio).

24 December was actually a fasting day in Venice, and the last of the four winter solstice days observed in the Lagoon until 50 years ago: Enriched with colorful winter fruit like persimmons and pomegranates, fish, poultry and lush green winter salads.

In the morning of 24 December, 30 December and 6 January, la pinsa was baked in the oven and eaten as early lunch. In the afternoon, baccalà and polenta was eaten on the islands of the northern Lagoon and in Venice. Simple but nourishing dishes, long forgotten, were served as desserts, such as canilla-saffron cake, pine liquor and eucalyptus-honey- flavored crespelle (pancakes).

A simple menu, a mix of seasonal and spice ingredients, was served as dinner on 24 December: Baccalà fish platter, sopa coada (originally a recipe from Treviso; in Venice, it’s a spicy chicken soup), sope de pesse – winter fish soup, and oca in salsa d’arancia – goose flavored with oranges, lots of pepper and thyme.

And there’s a very special dessert called torta del solstizio, a cake made from walnut flour-orange juice-saffron-cinnamon-spice mix with pomegranate-cardamom frosting.

A cuisine influenced by the ancient traditions of foraging in the Lagoon: Collecting herbs to add them to candied fruit like cherries, apricots and oranges, to convey that special flavor. Called cucina povera in the past, it’s becoming very popular now in Venice, and especially now at Christmas 2020.

Dark but very cozy: This is Venice when the sun rises at 8:45 am and sets just after 4 pm: Deep winter and its special moon phases bring back ancient Byzantine flair to Venice and into our kitchen. We’ve created this online experience for you to show a hidden side of Venice: The dark city and its traditional winter stories and recipes of winter solstice. 

Venice, for centuries an enclave of the East in “western” territory, wakes up behind the scenes when colorful spicy food is cooked, and stories of Christmases long past are shared! Our Byzantine heritage is reflected in the menus on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. And then, deep winter continues into January, lasting until Candelora, when the first rays of the spring sun take the veils off the foggy city and Lagoon.

This is not only about opulent Christmas lights, but you’ll discover the sleeping city while life is going on inside, in the kitchens and secret gardens behind the house. Like baking pevarini, the oldest cookie recipe in Europe!

We share this menu + cake + stories about the unknown real Christmas in Venice, told by Grandmother Lina, in our new online experience – WINTER SOLSTICE AND JANUARY IN VENICE: FLAVORS AND STORIES

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