In America, those of us who are of Italian heritage celebrate the Easter season with many different customs and traditions. Even with all of the current tension and anxiety caused by the coronavirus, we will still celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This spring season will be different from others and there may be many changes that occur in our beloved religious and symbolic ceremonies. In Italy, the traditions vary greatly because, as with cuisine and dialects, customs vary from region to region. These wonderful and unique traditions were brought to the United States through our Italian ancestors who made sure to preserve our culture.
Pasqua (Easter) is the most celebrated holiday in Italy after Christmas, with La Settimana Santa (Holy Week) rites beginning on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday. Sicily and Sardinia are particularly well-known for solemn displays of religious devotion which often include processions on Good Friday (Venerdì Santo), Holy Saturday (Sabato Santo) and Easter (Pasqua), when festivities turn joyous in nature. Local customs are blended with traditional Catholic rites to create unique celebrations that are faithfully recreated each year. In Tuscany, Florence performs an ancient rite that has its origins in the 12th century.
In Florence, an ancient event takes place on Easter morning – Scoppio del Carro, the Explosion of the Cart. Its origins go back to the 12th century when the event was named Pazzino dei Pazzi. According to a tradition mentioned by the medieval Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, the venerable ceremony is related to the First Crusade, preached in Florence by the then Bishop Ranieri.
On July 15, 1099, the Crusade army took Jerusalem after a lengthy siege. Pazzino is said to have been the first to hoist the Christian banner on the walls of the holy city. The ‘commander in chief,’ Godfrey IV de Buillon (whom the Italians called Buglione), received a reward in the form of three chips of stone from the Holy Sepulcher of Christ. These were carefully set aside and brought to Florence in 1101. Originally kept by the Pazzi family, these stones were used to kindle the first spark of the ‘new fire,’ a symbol of the life that began with Easter.
Florence thus adopted a custom known to have been developed in Jerusalem during the crusades: the distribution to clergy and laity of ‘holy fire’ as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. In Jerusalem, this rite was performed in the Basilica of the Resurrection (Anastasis) itself. For centuries in Florence, the fire kindled from the stones, once blessed and carried to the Cathedral, was used on Holy Saturday to light the Paschal candle, the candles of the people and the lamps of the church. On this occasion, a cart brought the fire to private houses as well. The cart gradually became more and more elaborate and the custom developed of ‘charging it’ with explosive powder.
During the Pontificate of Leo X (Giovanni de Medici, 1513-1521), the Colombina – a rocket shaped like a dove with an olive branch in its beak, was used for the first time. The dove is an evident reminder of the Holy Spirit. In contemporary times, on the morning of Easter Sunday, a large wagon pulled by white oxen forms a procession through Florence’s city center arriving at the front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. There the fire ignites a fuse attached to a dove-shaped rocket which shoots down a wire extended from the cathedral choir to the cart. It sets off a series of explosions to blow up the cart laden with fireworks.
Traditions in Sicily
Sicily’s Easter processions and celebrations are the most famous in Italy, dating back to the 17th century. Holy Week processions usually feature participants dressed in traditional costumes representing the most important figures that were involved in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Along with Jesus, there are the two men crucified alongside him, Pontius Pilate, Roman soldiers and penitents. Statues of Jesus and the Madonna (dressed in mourning black) are carried through the town in processions that may last for many hours – sometimes even the entire day. The faithful, often older women, follow behind barefooted to show their devotion.
Many visitors travel to Trapani on the west coast of the island to watch the procession of I Misteri which represents the most important event of the year. During the 17th century, the Confraternità del Preziosissimo Sangue di Cristo (the Brotherhood of the Most Precious Blood of Christ) commissioned local artists to create statues representing various moments of the Passion of Christ. This ancient order was founded in Trapani in 1602.
The Confraternità del Preziosissimo Sangue di Cristo later merged with the pre-existing Confraternità di San Michele, changing its name to the Confraternità di San Michele Archangel. Over the years the logistics and costs of taking care of the statues, together with the organization of the procession has required the involvement of the local Maestranze. These are working class groups composed of grocers, fishermen, bakers and butchers, who have taken on an increasingly predominant role over the years.
The Maestranze organizes the Good Friday procession and each one of them is responsible for a specific statue of the Misteri. Even today, each Maestranza is identified with a Mistero and often the statue represents a particular trade group. For example, the statue of the Deposition scene represents tailors and is taken care of by this group.
Currently there are 18 Maestranze involved in I Misteri. On the first Friday of the Lenten period they celebrate the Scinnuta, which in Sicilian means to take something down. In this case each statue is presented for public display so everyone can admire them. There is strong competition among the Maestranze, so details regarding the procession are kept secret until the last minute.
The actual procession lasts 24 hours and is accompanied by local marching bands. The statues are paraded around Trapani on the shoulders of volunteers, i portatori, who sway sideways as they walk in what is known as ‘a nnacata.
Even though very few will be visiting Sicily during this year’s Easter season, everyone should experience this stirring ancient ceremony at least once in their lifetime. No matter where one goes in Sicily during Holy Week, the sacred days are filled with centuries-old traditions.
On Easter Saturday, kitchens become a bustling center of activity as bakers prepare their tuma of ricotta in order to make cassate. A tuma is made of the cheese that falls to the bottom of the pan when Sicilians make ricotta. This Easter pastry is not the colored cream cake cassata, but is made from a much older and simpler recipe.
Feasting begins after Easter Sunday Mass. There is a pasta course and a main dish of lamb for most households. Afterwards, fruit is served along with colombe, the traditional dove-shaped Easter cakes and the many desserts that friends and relatives have brought along.
One of the true culinary stars of the Sicilian Easter season are artichokes which are so plentiful at this time of the year and can be purchased by the crateful on the roadsides. They are traditionally grilled for the Pasquetta, (Little Easter or Easter Monday) for yet another day of feasting. The artichokes are usually served before the main course, but sometimes they appear again after the desserts to help cleanse the palate.
Island of Sardinia Customs
Easter in Sardinia is characterized by traditional processions and ancient rituals taking place in various towns and cities. Both devotees and tourists can attend the events organized by the confraternite to re-enact the last days of Jesus’ life until the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Sa Chida Santa (Holy Week) begins with sas Prammas, the procession on Palm Sunday. In the following days, various moments from the Passion of Christ are represented through special rituals or processions. Good Friday is devoted to the ‘Death of Christ.’ In many towns, the most solemn moments are the ones dedicated to the “Mystery” or to s’Iscravamentu, the act by which the nails from Christ’s hands and feet are removed and then the statue is placed in a coffin and carried in procession.
Easter Sunday is a joyous day when the austerity of the Lenten season gives way to the celebration of the Resurrection. Applauding, throwing flowers and the playing of traditional instruments accompanies the statue of the risen Christ meeting with the Madonna. Following the procession, people wish each other Buona Pasqua (Happy Easter) and go back home to share a traditional feast with their families.
Holy Week rituals in Alghero, Setmana Santa de l’Alguer, are among the most striking. These Easter traditions date back to the 16th century and are still organized by the Confraternita della Misericordia (the Brotherhood of Misericordia). The focus of all the rituals is the Santcristus wooden statue of Christ. In the care of the Brotherhood of Gonafalone in the Church of Misericordia, the statue landed in Alghero in 1606, during the shipwreck of the Santa Maria di Montenero which was heading to Genoa. The wooden Christ of Alicante, Santcristus, floated ashore and became the most representative symbol of the town. The first procession in Alghero begins on Good Friday. Traditionally, women dressed in black follow the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the town.