Chocolate eggs are stacked high in supermercati, Colomba dove cakes decorate pasticcerie windows and lambs are being made ready for the dining table. But away from the well-known traditions of an Italian Easter there are many different ways to celebrate. From cheese rolling to Florentine fireworks, dancing devils to sprinting Madonnas and tree lifting to egg Olympics Italians love to mark Easter. Here are some of the more unusual ways to mark a wonderful Italian Easter.
As the Vatican prepares a series of solemn Easter weekend events including the candlelit “Way of the Cross” procession from the Colosseum, towns and villages around the country are marking the religious festival in their own unique ways.
In Enna, Sicily, over 2000 friars in ancient costume parade through the city streets in silence, just as their ancestors have done for over 500 years. Meanwhile in Puglia, the festival of Le Fracchie, or the torches, turns night into day in the town of San Marco in Lamis. Tree trunks are split open and wooden sticks packed into one end to make enormous torches. They’re piled high onto wagons and pulled along lighting the way for a procession of the Madonna. The torches, so locals explain, help Mary to search for her dead son.
Religious Parade, in town of Enna, Sicily for the Holy Easter. Every year for Holy Friday is staged the passion of Christ in a procession which lasts through the afternoon and night. Sicilian people are very devoted. © Ilmoro100 | Dreamstime.com
Easter Sunday, La Pasqua
The main Italian Easter festivities occur around Easter Sunday or Pasqua and Easter Monday or La Pasquetta, “little Easter.” And merriments really do take all forms. So whilst Pope Francesco takes holy mass in front of thousands of worshippers in St Peter’s Square, Rome, the people of a little town called Prizzi in northern Sicily are dancing with the devil.
In an ageless medieval battle between good and evil, villagers dress up as demons and death to take over the town centre for “Il ballo dei diavoli”, the dance of the devils. The red costumed satans move through town annoying locals with their demonic dances until they are offered money or food to move on. But they’re not just irritating; the masked monsters are on a mission to stop two statues of the Madonna and Jesus from meeting. Ultimately, however, the devils fail and good eventually triumphs reaffirming the supremacy of goodness but not before excited locals have enjoyed a little forbidden excitement.
Up north in Florence, the scene is even more explosive, with the traditional Scoppio del Carro, or “Exploding of the Cart” celebrations. Pasqua festivities begin as an ornate cart carved in 1689 is pulled through the historic Florentine centre by huge garlanded white oxen. The 3-storey cart is packed with fireworks and its destination is the front of the sumptuous Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral where thousands of spectators gather to welcome it. Meanwhile inside the basilica Florence’s Archbishop presides over mass whilst the crowds wait outside. And then comes the moment that everyone has waited for as the priest sends a dove-shaped rocket symbolizing the Holy Spirit whooshing towards the cart. Everything hangs on the dove igniting the cart’s volatile cargo and the bigger the bang, the better as an almighty explosion ensures a good harvest and good fortune for the city. Never have so many fingers been crossed!
Easter is a festival very close to Italian hearts. Photo by davideprecone .gmail.com
And if that’s not lively enough for you, how about a sprinting Madonna to enliven Easter celebrations in Italy? That’s exactly what happens in Sulmona, in the central eastern region of Abruzzo where the procession of La Madonna che scappa, or the “Madonna who runs away” sees the statue of the Virgin racing across the main town square towards her resurrected son on the other side. The drama is heightened with firecrackers and the final release of doves as Mary’s black mourning cloak falls from her back. This is most definitely an unusually vibrant way to celebrate La Pasqua and one not to be missed.
But if devils, fireworks and sprinting statues are a little too much why not head to Cividale del Friuli, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northern Italy for a game of Il Truc or egg boules. The pastime dates back to Medieval times and uses prettily painted hens eggs instead of bowls, boules or balls. Centred around a circular stone lined pit the aim is to roll your egg down the ramp into the pit and knock your opponent’s eggs out of the way as you go. And fortunately competition is good-humoured so it’s an egg-citing way to celebrate the arrival of Easter Sunday!
La Pasquetta, Easter Monday
Known affectionately as La Pasquetta or Il Lunedì dell’Angelo, Angel’s Monday, Easter Monday is a national holiday and traditionally the day when Italians enjoy carefree country picnics with friends and family to celebrate the return of spring.
In Alto-Adige’s alpine Merano, however, the town is preparing something a bit different, the Corse Rusticane or traditional horse races of peculiarly blonde Haflinger horses. Before the race, gold maned horses and their traditionally costumed Tyrolean riders parade through town accompanied by bands and folk dancers. The day culminates as the beautiful blond mountain horses race around the Maia racetrack to the delight of the crowds. The golden horses of Easter are a unique sight as their manes fly in the wine. If you like horses, Merano is definitely worth a trip.
And finally, we can’t talk about an Italian Easter without mentioning food. Dining tables and picnic blankets sag under the weight of roast lambs, Columba cakes, bread and much much more. But in Panicale in Umbria, food is even more central to the Pasquetta festival, if that’s possible, as the town celebrates with a cheese-rolling race! Combining elements of yo-yo, bocce and running the race is said to commemorate the moment the stone door was rolled away from Jesus’s tomb. Giocatori, or players, jostle to be the first to roll a nine-pound Pecorino cheese around the perimeter of the old, walled village but the rules of this ancient race are strict. They’re allowed to use a leather strap to launch the cheese and keep it moving with a whip-like stick but otherwise players shouldn’t use hands or feet to propel their cheese on. The winner of the Ruzzolone race is the one who finishes with the fewest taps of the cheese and the prize, fittingly, is the cheese itself. Delizioso!
Ultimately there’s more to a traditional Italian Easter that meets the eye with as many different ways to celebrate as there are towns and cities. One thing is for certain, however, Easter is a festival very close to Italian hearts. And whether you do it with races, parades or simple egg-travaganzas, this is definitely a time to celebrate. Buona Pasqua a tutti, Happy Easter everyone!