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The devilish horn-playing characters begin to sound a military march as the Holy Procession approaches. Note the adorable youngsters in training, at left, who are walking ahead of the procession.

The Devils of San Fratello

In the province of Messina in Sicily, there is a unique Holy Week tradition. During the solemn days of Holy Wednesday through Good Friday, a strange group of men appear throughout the town blowing trumpets, playing pranks and generally disturbing the peace. How during these days of piety leading up to the crucifixion, can such merriment be tolerated?

For countless generations, these devilish characters have represented the embodiment of everyone who denounced, whipped and put to death Jesus Christ. They run through the streets and now take the form of noisy, but happy devils wearing colorful costumes embroidered with pearls and gold braid epaulettes. On their heads is an elaborate helmet. A horse tail hangs out the back of each of the jackets and the colorful masks that are worn have a long black tongue with a cross embroidered on its end.

The costumes are handed down from father to son and are bright red and pseudo military in style, recalling the Roman soldiers who put Christ to death. The deafening confusion they create seems frightening, but this uproar is life-affirming. The cacophony and disruption they create will soon end with the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday; in effect, out of chaos, comes order. It is a celebration that has gone on uninterrupted for countless generations, including during both world wars.

The popular religious festival dates back to medieval times, when the reenactment of the Passion of Christ often emerged from the churches to be played out in the town’s piazza throughout Italy. Although the characters look like they belong at Carnevale, they are forever linked to this holy procession.