In Italy one festival quickly follows another and no sooner is the Christmas season over than the Carnival season is upon us. In Tricarico [Matera, Basilicata] Carnival begins early.

This Carnival begins at dawn on the "Giovedì Grasso" (Shrove Thursday), the feast day of Sant’Antonio Abate, the patron saint of domestic animals. The writer Carlo Levi, who was exiled to Lucania during the fascist period, describes the sounds which still wake the town up on this day:

“The town was awoken, while it was still night, by an ancient sound of the beating of hollow wooden instruments, like cracked bells. It was a primitive, forest sound that penetrated the senses like a call to something infinitely remote. And everyone, man and beast, was climbing the hillside…”

What Levi heard were the bells attached to the clothing of masked figures and to ribbons being worn by their animals, for on this day people dress up as cows, bulls and oxen and take their animals to be blessed. First, people who are not taking part in the procession walk around the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate three times and receive the blessing at the end of Mass. Then the masked figures and their animals do the same.

After the blessing, the masked figures and animals walk through the medieval streets of the town, having a lot of fun and miming the coupling of cow and bull as they go. They greet the inhabitants of the houses they pass and receive offerings of sausages, salame, cheese and wine. This food is saved for the evening festa when accordion and traditional instrument music will be played.

The tradition is really a re-enactment of the transhumance of herds of cattle which used to take place and the ceremony serves as a reminder of the old ways.

On the Sunday prior to Shrove Tuesday the celebrations take place all over again but this time there is more focus on the “mandria” or herd and people again parade through the town dressed as cattle. There are allegorical Carnival floats too and the mock burning of the spirit of Carnival is staged at the end of the ceremonies.

The Tricarico Carnival has recently been added to the official list of the Federation of European Carnival Cities, the only town in the former Lucania to have received this honour.