For many Italians, Saint Joseph’s Day festivities involve fanciful breads and huge tables filled with delectable sweets of every kind. Feasts take place in cities across Italy and the United States, yet no celebration is quite like the one in Scicli, a small town near Ragusa in south eastern Sicily. La Cavalcata di San Giuseppe, or Saint Joseph’s Ride, is perhaps the most unique and colorful of all the St. Joseph’s celebrations in the world.
Every March, the town of Scicli is enlivened by pageantry and a parade of horses are draped in flower-laden cloaks. Each horse’s costume is made from lightweight foam rubber, onto which thousands of violaciocca flowers – a fragrant spring bloom related to the wallflower – are attached in elaborate patterns. The flower decorations represent religious symbols as well as the coat of arms of the city. Large draft horses are used for the event, similar to the type once used on farms and at a time when every stable contained a picture of San Giuseppe. Teams of horse decorators compete for cash prizes in several categories, from simple neck adornments to the full bardatura, which includes a cloak and headdress nearly concealing the horse in intricate floral splendor.
Each horse has one or two riders, often small children whose feet cannot even reach the stirrups. The reins are held by men carrying lanterns who lead the horses through the winding streets. All of the participants wear the traditional Sicilian costume of a crisp white shirt topped by a black embroidered vest, a colorful scarf and either a coppola or a stocking cap.
The vivid procession travels through the streets of Scicli until it reaches St. Joseph’s Church in the Piazza Italia. Bonfires, or pagghiara, illuminate the path of the procession while those attending the feast hold torches. In the past, gigantic bonfires were lit throughout the town but have since been reduced to a few controlled fires.
With both religious and folkloristic origins, La Cavalcata di San Giuseppe dates back to the medieval period. The event began as a rite of passage from winter to summer, held at the beginning of spring to propitiate the harvest. It gradually took on a religious significance with prayers to San Giuseppe for a good harvest. The cavalcata simulated the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, when Joseph was obliged to flee with his wife Mary and son Jesus to escape Herod’s massacre of the innocents. The flight is recalled in Scicli through a historical re-enactment that attracts many people, Sicilians and tourists alike.
Today, both the sacred and secular are thoroughly meshed into a lively festival, one that can confidently be called the most unique Saint Joseph celebration in the world.