August 15 is a significant date in Italy, as it is the day that Italians celebrate Ferragosto, a holiday that marks the start of a period of rest and relaxation. The date marks the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a holy day of obligation in the Catholic religion. Residents of Messina, Sicily, commemorate this holy day by carrying the vara of the Virgin Mary in a slow procession. The entire structure includes the coffin, representing the burial place of her body, as well as a statue of Christ supporting His mother in the palm of one hand as He lifts her up into heaven.
The date of Ferragosto goes back to Roman times and Augustus, the first ruler of the Roman Empire. He changed the time frame of the end-of-summer festivities from September to mid-August, the month named for him. These celebrations were held annually to mark the end of the agricultural cycle and provided a reprieve for the farmers from their daily toil. The festivities were aptly named feriae Augusti or August holiday and from the Latin the name was translated into Italian as Ferragosto.
The feriae Augusti served two purposes. In addition to welcoming the end of the agricultural season, they were also held in honor of the Roman gods, especially Diana, who was the goddess of the hunt, as well as the moon. Eating, drinking and overall merriment was encouraged. The festivities were unique in that they transcended class. Aristocrats and nobles celebrated alongside servants and slaves, sharing the same food and wine during this special occasion.
Today, Italians mark Ferragosto with a month long celebration. Throughout the month of August the usually crowded streets and tiny shops are shockingly empty, creating the appearance of temporary ghost towns throughout the country. Those visiting an Italian city during August may find family-owned restaurants and shops closed for vacation, as Italians leave the city behind and head up to the mountains or down to the nearest beach.
Each region has its own special series of events that take place during this time. In the mountains and valleys of Val D’Aosta, a three day celebration takes place where attendees can enjoy a festival as well as concerts in the various piazzi around the region.
In Rome, the Piazza del Popolo is decorated in brilliant colors for the Big Ferragosto Dance, Gran Ballo di Ferragosto. Dancers from the local professional schools come together to waltz, tango, fox trot and perform a number of other dances, welcoming onlookers to take part. This dance spectacle is a continuation of the ancient traditions from the Roman period where dancing and merriment were encouraged.
The day after Ferragosto, a Palio is held in Siena. The horse race is conducted to celebrate the appearance of the Virgin Mary in the house of a man named Provenzano Salvani. She was then known as the Madonna of Provenzano and in her honor, the first Palio was held on August 16, 1656.
Foods that are typically eaten during Ferragosto include chicken with fresh peppers, sautéed in olive oil and white wine; anything prepared on the grill, such as sausage, lamb and vegetables; an antipasto with liver; veal tonnato; a simple lemon sorbeto and a watermelon chill, a Sicilian dessert which is essentially frozen watermelon with sugar and chocolate. Pasta with homemade Bolognese sauce is also traditional, along with a bottle of vino, such as a fine Tuscan Chianti.
In every Italian town, the highlight of most Ferragosto festivities is when families, not just parents and children, but grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, enjoy a lavish pranzo or luncheon in a restaurant located where they are vacationing. Families take this opportunity not just to catch up with one another during this period of freedom from work, school and everyday routines, but to eat, drink and simply enjoy the love of family.