On May 15 each year, decked with banners and colorful tapestries, Gubbio in Umbria celebrates its Patron, Saint Ubaldo, with one of the oldest folklore events in Italy: Corsa dei Ceri – the Race of the Candles. The origins of this feast are rooted in the centuries past. Some scholars trace it back to pagan ceremonies in honor of the goddess Ceres. Still others speculate that it began in 1154, in celebration of Gubbio’s victory against opposing city states. The most likely theory is that it was originally to honor Ubaldo Badassini, Bishop of Gubbio in the 12th century. Today he is the patron saint of the city.
Beloved by the people, Ubaldo died on May 16, 1160. Since that year, the procession “del transito” has been organized on the eve of his death, originally with the offering of votive candles. After a few centuries, the candles were replaced by three enormous wooden structures called ceri, each weighing 700 pounds. The tradition has remained intact to this day. The candles are wooden structures formed by two octagonal prisms in the shape of an hourglass. The lower end of the boxes are attached to a frame that is carried on the shoulders of the ceraioli, bearers of the candles. At the top of each ceri are the statues of the patron saints of the town’s guilds: St. Ubaldo for bricklayers, St. Giorgio for merchants and Saint Antonio Abate for the farmers.
Contrary to what some spectators might think, the race already has a decided winner and overtaking is not allowed during the “race” and St. Ubaldo always wins. The only aim of the ceraioli is to deliver the ceri safely to the foot of the basilica. The honor of carrying the ceri is passed from father to son through the generations and although 15 men carry the candle, dozens more jump in, relay style, during the race. It is no easy task to carry the heavy, vertically inclined ceri in the middle of a euphoric crowd, while moving through the narrow city streets at full speed. The route covers two miles and ends with the climbing of Mount Ubaldo, with an average gradient of 15%. At the foot of the Basilica of St. Ubaldo, the ceri are lowered to the cheers of the immense crowd and then are brought inside the basilica. This race between Gubbio’s ceraioli is certainly one of craziest and historic races of Italy.