Being a predominantly Catholic country, the Easter rituals in Italy are second only to their rituals of Christmas or Il Natale. Like other Catholics around the world, the celebration begins on Palm Sunday in commemoration of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The observance of Palm Sunday is followed by a broad number of other rituals that include religious services, colorful processions, and re-enactments with costumes of biblical scenes and of Jesus' passion. Of interest but not solely unique to Italy, the Easter celebration culminates on the Monday after Resurrection Day, with La Pasquetta, or little Easter. Towns and cities celebrate this non-religious holiday with festivities that include music, picnics, and games. La Pasquatta is mostly a day for fun with friends and food. It became a national holiday after WWII, to extend a sacred period of peace and rejoicing throughout the peninsula.
Unlike Christmas, the Italians consider Easter to be a time of celebration with whomever they love and not necessarily a celebration that is mostly reserved for family members. As a popular Italian proverb dictates, “Natale con I tuoi, e Pasqua con chi vuoi,” or, “Spend Christmas with your family, and Easter with whomever you like.” While many continue to spend Easter with their family, more and more Italians are celebrating with friends.
The popular religious rituals of Holy Week in Italy are similar to the rites of other Catholics around the world. The ceremonies are carried out mostly within the span of Giovedi Santo (Holy Thursday),Venerdi Santo (Good Friday), and Sabato Santo (Holy Saturday). Each day offers either a unique mass or a cluster of somber rituals. It all culminates with the church bells tolling at midnight to announce the arrival of Domenica di Pasqua (Easter Sunday). After living the simple and pious life of Lent, Italians eagerly look at Easter as a day to rejoice and to celebrate once again! Festive processions line the streets, and the day culminates with an extravagant and memorable midday feast, il pranzo di Pasqua.
The Easter dinner menu varies from region to region, with each having its own unique way of cooking various types of food. However, a few nationwide standard dishes do exist. For instance, roast lamb and spring vegetables are a must have in most households. Also, desserts of chocolate eggs and cakes shaped in the form of a dove (Colomba) are very popular throughout the region, as well as savory cheese breads and cakes. In the weeks prior to Easter, throughout Italy, store windows have large displays of traditional treats that are enjoyed as the desserts for the Easter meal.
But what makes Easter in Italy so unique, special and distinctive? It all has to do with the country's history. Before its Unification in 1861, Italy was occupied and ruled for years by people of diverse cultures and origin such as the Greeks, Huns, Normans, Byzantines, Spaniards, French, Phoenicians, Arabs, and others. The diverse cultures of other nations did permeate into the Italian culture, and, over the years, the rituals have been absorbed into the Italian way of life. As a result, many areas of Italy celebrate events with customs and rituals that are different from their neighboring areas, all depending on who conquered and influenced their region. Examples of such diversities are highlighted in the following few summaries.
In Piedmont: On odd years only, the Good Friday procession is held in Romagnano, Siena with over 300 actors re-enacting the Stations of The Cross. It lasts 4 days and one can observe actors in legionary costumes walking among the crowds, Jesus carrying the cross, and the 14 stations of Via Crucis. On even years, the people of this region re-enact Epiphany Day, on Jan 6th. This ritual is similar to one held in Rome where the Pope on Good Friday leads a procession of pilgrims with candlelight and torches from Palatine Hill to the Colosseum. The procession makes 14 stops to pray along the way, as it reenacts the walk of Christ to Calvary.
In Florence: La Festa Del Carro: The Florentines commemorate Easter Sunday with a procession where a team of white oxen pull an antique cart full of fireworks. The cart is generally accompanied by musicians, about 150 soldiers, and people dressed in 15th century costumes. Once the procession reaches its destination, in Piazza del Duomo in front of Santa Maria del Fiore, a dove shaped rocket holding an olive branch is shot toward the cart to set off the boom, the "scoppio". The Florentines believe this event will bring them a good harvest, business prosperity, and a harmonious civic life.
In Enna, Sicily: The Spanish influence is showcased in the city of Enna during Easter. The commemoration at Enna lasts the entire Holy Week. But the most impressive event is the procession held on Good Friday. It is so unique and important that it is recorded in the Registry of the Cultural Heritage of Sicily. More than 2,000 disciples and more than 20,000 people from all over Sicily attend this event. The disciples, wearing hoods, walk around the city in complete silence, before partaking in the procession. They are accompanied by members of the Confraternity of Passion carrying 25 relics, called "Misteri" of the martyrdom of Christ. Other Confraternities also join the procession. Blessings are performed as the procession reaches its destination at a church cemetery before the entire procession turns around and returns to its beginning place.
In Procida: Here an ancient tradition, dating back to the seventeenth century, brings the Easter mystery to life. At dawn on Good Friday, people are awakened by the sound of trumpets. A procession starts at around 8:00 AM with a statue of Mary and a statue of Christ is carried on the shoulders of men to the Church of San Tommaso. The processions is accompanied by floats made by the people of Procida, uniquely representing the stations of the Passion of Christ. They start to work on the floats at the end of the Carnivale and they take their mission seriously in terms of effort and money spent to achieve their end results. At the end of the day on Good Friday, the floats are taken inside the Church of San Giacomoto where they are displayed for an additional 40 days.
Other unique rituals can be seen in:
In Bologna with: The Stroll to the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca
In Sulmona, L'Aquila, Abbruzzo with: La Madonna che Scappa
In Modica, Sicily with: Vasa,Vasa
In Siena with: The Procession of Penitence on Holy Thursday
In Sorrento with: The White Procession around 3 AM and The Black Procession around 9 PM on Good Friday
In Venice with: The black garments and a coffin containing the consecrated Host on Good Friday and brilliant costumes and a Quem Quaeritis trope on Easter Sunday.
and numerous other cities and towns exhibiting their own rituals....
Easter is a time for reflection and merrymaking for all Christians and all the followers of Jesus. Hail to all the Italians - Americans communities and may their Easter celebrations be jam packed with their own ancestral food and rituals.
Buona Pasqua a tutti !!!