The Venetians have two religious events that they never miss: the Feast of the Redeemer and “Madonna della Salute” (Our Lady of Health).
Both have been celebrated for centuries and are linked to a vow made by Venice for the bringing to an end of a series of terrible plagues that once decimated the population. The city vowed to build churches in honour of the grace received.
Every year Venetians recognise this vow by making pilgrimages to the two Venetian churches that were built. This is made possible by the construction of temporary bridges on barges. One crosses the Grand Canal and the other the Giudecca Canal.
The feast of the Redeemer is held the evening of the third Saturday in July. This is also the festival of the “foghi”, featuring a firework show in the bay of San Marco while it is literally covered with boats.
It starts in the morning or early afternoon when boats are loaded up with traditional dishes cooked and prepared beforehand for the evening. These include stuffed duck, “sarde in saor” (a sardine dish), pasta and beans, the inevitable watermelon and a bevy of drinks. Everything is placed in a portable cooler to keep cold during the long, hot summer day.
In the afternoon, the boats start to moor in spots specifically set up to allow enjoying the cool of the evening while dining on board and waiting for the fireworks. When they are over, the boats return home or moor somewhere else in the lagoon to spend the night on board. Younger people head for the Lido to continue the festivities on the beach until dawn.
I have a childhood memory of the Madonna della Salute festival, celebrated on 21 November, which is still fresh. As a child, I went together with my mother, aunts and cousins on a pilgrimage to the “Chiesa della Salute” or ‘Church of Health’. There was no way of getting out of it even if, as often happens at that time of year, the weather was not good and the day was rainy and cold.
For us children, the walk to the church ended for us by purchasing some sweets at the fair stalls in the churchyard.
During this festival, Venetians eat a traditional soup dish of mutton called “castradina” to stay warm as they wait in the boat the first morning mass.
There are many holidays that also stem from ancient and recent secular traditions, for example, the Carnival of Venice, to mention a well-known one.
Another ritutal that Venetians maintain is one falling on 25 April, the saint’s day of the city’s patron, Saint Mark.
The tradition on this day is that boyfriends and husbands giive their girlfriends and wives a “bocolo” or a red rosebud in remembrance of their love. The custom comes from a legend that tells of a young man who died in battle in a far away land. His red blood coloured the white roses there and these were taken to his betrothed in Venice.
Whether just legend or a reality, Venetian women would not give up the “bocolo” they receive from their men for anything in the world.