In honor of Fat Tuesday, I decided to write a post on Easter in Italy, which is strangely both a solemn and joyful affair. I actually love this time of year, because it means Spring is coming, the cold is lifting and we are heading towards summer.
It all starts around 40 days before Easter Sunday with Fat Tuesday or Martedì Grasso.
Italians celebrate the period leading up to this day with Carnevale, a joyous festival of drink, food, costumes and merriment. If you happen to be in Italy for Carnevale, be sure to check out Viareggio or Venice, as they are two of the most famous celebrations. I was in Viareggio this year, and let me tell you…FUN FUN AND MORE FUN! Be sure to buy some bags of coriandoli (which is called confetti in English, not to be confused with the Italian word confetti that is actually a type of candy…) to throw and if you’re really smart get your tickets ahead of time to avoid the lines. It’s also traditional to dress up in Italy (think Halloween in America) so come prepared with costumes, wigs or otherwise!
Immediately following the wild Martedi Grasso, it’s time for Ash Wednesday or Mercoledì delle Ceneri. On this day, you will often see Italians walking around with a cross on their face, a blessing in ash from a priest. This also begins the beginning of Lent. The Lenten season or Quaresima is one of repentance and many people chose to give up an indulgence during this time.
After about 4 weeks, Lent comes to a close with the Settimana Santa, or Holy Week, the week right before Easter.
The Sunday before Easter Sunday is called Palm Sunday or Domenica delle Palme and traditionally palm fronds are handed out at mass. However, in Italy, the palm fronds are often replaced by olive branches. Many Italians tuck them into their bags and carry them for the rest of the day or even the week.
The Thursday and Friday before Easter are also venerated. Giovedì Santo and Venerdì Santo are considered solemn, serious days. These days also mark the beginning of many processionals.
In Trapani, Sicily for example, they have a 24 hour procession with over 2,000 monks dressed in ancient costume. One of the oldest processions in Italy is in Chieti, in the Abruzzo region, which has a musical accompaniment of 100 violins. By contrast, other towns such as Montefalco in Umbria create a full re-enactment of the stations of the cross.
When you finally arrive to Easter Sunday, or Pasqua the mood of the Holy Week finally lifts. Children wake up to chocolate eggs (uova di cioccolato), often with surprises inside and families head out of their homes early as many cities have an exciting demonstration following mass.
In Florence, for example, we have the Scoppio del Carro, or the exploding cart which takes place every year in front of Florence’s Cathedral. It has a fireworks display complete with billowing purple smoke at the end, which is the (un)official color of Florence.
After the mass and demonstrations, Italians head home to prepare a big Easter lunch or dinner.
This meal is usually lamb or goat based with lots of artichokes as well. You’ll also find Easter sweet cakes, which are in the shape of a dove and are called colomba. They are either given as gifts or enjoyed at the end of a hearty Easter meal.
The merriment doesn’t stop yet though, because Easter Monday, or Pasquetta, is another day of fun. It is a national holiday and so most people don’t have to work or go to school. There are often free concerts, dances, festivals or general merrymaking.
One town in particular has quite the Easter Monday tradition.
In Panicale, a small town in Umbria, large wheels of cheese (about 10lbs each) are rolled around the village walls. The object of this game, Ruzzolone, is to complete the course using the minimal number of strokes to roll your cheese!
I love this time of year in Italy, if you’ve never visited during this time, check it out!