An article in Il Sole 24 Ore highlights some traditional Easter rituals, games and processions in Italy. Throughout the country towns and cities practice varying rites. The most well-known is Florence’s “scoppio del Carro” in which a cart, drawn by oxen, processes through the city. On the cart is a rocket which is made to explode at the end of the procession. This commemorates the sparks that supposedly emanated from shards of the Holy Sepulchre. There are many other traditions that mix religion and folklore. In many towns there are different varieties of egg races and competitions, in others there are processions that represent various aspects of the Easter story. There are fascinating traditions in towns in every region.
In Italy at this time of year – in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and culminating in martedi’ grasso – it is the season of Carnevale. It is possibly the most festive time of the year when children wear costumes and left over colorful coriandoli (confetti) dot the streets. Some towns, like Viareggio, celebrate with processions of allegorical floats. Venice is well-known for its carnival masks and festivities. Many special sweets, like the Roman frappe and the Neapolitan zeppole, are made at home or sold in pasticcerie at this time.
The origins of Carnevale are ancient: there were various pagan festivals in which masks were donned to ward off evil spirits. The Romans also celebrated holidays such as the Saturnalia, a period when masks were worn, class order was overturned and street festivities abounded. In Christian times these rites evolved into the pre-Lenten forms of popular entertainment. In the courts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the festivities became more sophisticated and were tied to theater, music and dance. Still today the festive aspect of costumes and masks and parties endures before the start of a (supposed) more sober season.
January 6th marks the celebration of the Epiphany, the end of the Christmas festivities, when the three kings arrived bringing gifts for the infant Jesus. In Italy this day is associated with La Befana, an ugly old woman, dressed in rags, who flies in on a broom on the night between the 5th and the 6th. La Befana enters each house through the chimney leaving gifts of sweets and candy for good children and lumps of coal for those who have been bad. She often sweeps and cleans up the hearth. The figure of the benevolent witch bearing gifts is similar to that of Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas. Her origins are a mix: in pre-Christian times an old woman bearing gifts and tidying was associated with rituals marking the end of one season and the beginning of another. Over the passage of time these stories blended with Christian traditions; in one story La Befana is the old woman the Magi meet on their way to Bethlehem and of whom they ask directions. Nowadays, along with Santa (a more recent introduction in Italy), she is another beloved figure who brings gifts at Christmas time.
The website “Archivi della moda del Novecento” is a valuable source of information for those interested in Italian fashion. It contains bibliographies, audiovisual material, information on exhibits and collections, historical summaries and wonderful pictures. The site is not only a great tool for scholars but also lots of fun for non-specialists to explore.