The Festa di Santo Stefano was, according to William Dean Howells (who takes his information from Giustina Renier-Michiel's Origine delle Feste Veneziane), "one of the rare occasions of the year when the Doge appeared officially in public after nightfall." Each year on this day, December 26, the Doge boarded a magnificent ship (though not the grand il Bucintoro) and, accompanied by a beautifully-lanterned flotilla of nobles and other citizens, made his way across the basin of San Marco to the church of San Giorgio to pay his respects to the body of the martyr buried there.
The photos of this post (and the lone image of my December 13 post) were taken exactly two weeks ago, at about 4 in the afternoon, far down the Riva from the Doge's old residence, but I was assured by one of the people filming the short ceremony that it was meant to commemorate the Doge's annual mini-pilgrimage.
Sandro and I were walking home from his school and it was the bagpiper that first got our attention. I sincerely doubt that bagpipers were involved in the traditional ceremony of December 26--though it was a nice addition to a foggy afternoon. And when the Doge, after freeing himself from what appeared to be some rather complicated state business on his cell phone, boarded the waiting ship (Il Nuovo Trionfo), it was not to be taken across the basin to San Giorgio Maggiore but to simply pay his brief respects to a living presepe, or manger scene.
At this point I asked another member of the small film crew what was going on, but he'd hardly gotten much beyond what the previous guy had told me about how the Doge used to visit San Giorgio Maggiore when Sandro started complaining quite insistently that he was cold and tired and wanted to continue on our way home.
So, really, I don't know exactly what was going on, or for what purpose, aside from that it was a St Stephen's Day rite on a day that was not St Stephen's Day and that bore almost no relation to the traditional rite.
But it did remind me that one of the still-observed traditions of this day in Venice is for Venetian families to take a walk to see some of the local presepe, and this is why I post these images today: not so much as a picturesque celebration in costume of what used to be done during the long centuries of the late great Republic, but of what remains alive today.