One of the biggest celebrations in the Sicilian city of Palermo is the Feast of Santa Rosalia, which takes place from July 10 through the 15th. The purpose of the celebration is to thank and worship the patron saint of the city, Saint Rosalia, also called la Santuzza.
Rosalia was born to a Norman noble family and as a young girl was part of the court of King Ruggero. Devoutly religious, she refused to submit to an arranged marriage to a Count, but instead, she chose to live as a hermit on Mount Pellegrino. She died in a cave that had become her home in 1166. She was only 35 years old.
The birth of the first Festino di Santa Rosalia was over 450 years later. In 1624, Palermo was in the midst of a terrible plague, where the epidemic was decimating the population. On Monte Pellegrino, Saint Rosalia appeared in a vision to a hunter from Palermo. She told him where her bodily remains were located and told him to recover her bones and carry them around the city three times to honor the Holy Trinity. Saint Rosalia would then intercede on behalf of the stricken victims.
The hunter climbed the mountain and found her bones in the cave as described. He did what she had asked in the apparition and after her remains were carried through the city as directed, the plague ceased. After this, Saint Rosalia was venerated as the patron saint of Palermo and a sanctuary was built in the cave where her remains were discovered.
U Fistinu (the feast), starts on July 10th and reaches its peak on July 15. Over 200,000 are expected to attend. One of the interesting features of Saint Rosalia Day in Palermo is that the celebration differs each year. The schedule of the events maintain a certain structure from year to year, but the core events change yearly. During the week of the feast leading up to July 15th, the city becomes a natural, open-air theater. An incredible 50-foot-high float (the carro), made of wood, papier-mâché and cloth, parades through the streets. Each year, it is created by a different artist. On the float a band plays traditional music. At the center is the altar, topped by a statue of the Saint and a 17th century silver urn containing the Saint’s relics.
The feast begins with a performance in front of the Cathedral, telling the story of the Saint. Then the carro of Saint Rosalia begins its procession that will take it a distance of more than a mile to the port and the doors of the city. Once the wagon stops, the fireworks start, lighting up the sky as though it was daytime. The feast goes on until late into the night, transforming the whole of Palermo into an immense cheering crowd.
During the celebrations, traditional dishes are served, including la pasta chî sardi (pasta with sardines), babbaluci (boiled snails with garlic and parsley) and sfincione and u purpu (boiled octopus).