Our What’s On in Italy series, which looks at Italy’s major events and festivals each month, has added a regional spin: every month, we will focus on a different Italian region to help you better plan your visits around great events that you may want to attend.
This month we are focusing on Sicily; we looked at music and film festivals first, then we looked at food festivals and a mix of folkloristic/cultural/outdoorsy events, today we look at the many religious festivals and events taking place throughout the year.
TAVOLATE DI SAN GIUSEPPE – Various locations, March
One of the main elements of Sicilian Father's Day is the celebration of St Joseph. In Sicilian regions, the tables are prepared in honour of St Joseph, bearing pictures and icons – plus specially prepared foods such as bread shaped in the everyday objects connected with the Holy Carpenter. Other common foods include pastas (cooked with sausages, cheeses, fried vegetables and regular vegetable offerings such as broccoli), desserts (including cassata, cannoli and pignolata) and fruits and vegetables such as oranges and lettuce.
Individual areas in Sicily mark the day in a number of notable ways. Syracuse carries a statue of St Joseph in procession. Palermo also parades a statue of the saint with the aid of a group of mules. Enna holds a massive public banquet, while in Agrigento, it is traditional to gather laurel branches to adorn a 10m high wooden tower known as the Stragula, which is mounted on a wagon decorated with Cudduri (shapes of large loaves).
FESTA DEL SANTISSIMO CROCIFISSO – Monreale, May
The patron saint of Monreale, SS Crucifix is celebrated in the early part of May. Its an event that is equal measures of serious religious worship and joyous celebration.
It is traditional on the last day of the festival for the Archbishop to descend from the altar of the venerated image before the effigy of Crucifix is placed at the exterior of the local church. People will then come to the church to touch and pray before the icon. Following this, there is a procession which transforms the route into a vista of candles, rose petals and lights.
The festival also involves dancing, flag waving, singing and concludes proceedings with a memorable firework display.
FESTA DI GESU' NAZARENO – San Giovanni Gemini, June
Festa di Gesù Nazareno takes place in San Giovanni Gemini, in Agrigento on the second Sunday of June. The Nazareno in question is a sculpture created from wood which surrounds Jesus with the icons of St John The Evangelist, Mary Magdalene kneeling on one side and the Virgin of Sorrows on the other side.
This event has been in existence since 1677 after the legend goes that a group of peasants discovered the statue near Montagnola Puzzillo. The statue was then pulled to the local church – hence the traditional pulling of the Triumphal Chariot, decorated with velvet drapes, papier mache flowers and coloured flags. The event is accompanied by bands and music, and to herald the event, firecrackers are utilised to symbolise the purification of the oncoming route to ward off danger.
FEAST OF MADONNA DEL MIRTO – Villafranca Sicula, August
Once upon a time, a friar, bearing two images of the Madonna, accidentally lost one of the pieces. As it turned out, the missing image was located in shrubs of myrtle. The next day, the same thing happened. An image vanished and was ultimately found in the same spot. It was believed by the villages of Villafranca, Burgio and Lucca Sicula that this was a sign that a sanctuary should be built on this very spot.
And so, the Feast of Our Lady of Myrtle is now celebrated in the early part of August to mark the double miracle. Before the feast itself, believers and saints make their way to the Cathedral to pay homage. The four-hour procession to mark the occasion takes place in addition to music, dancing and a fireworks display.
FESTA DEL SANTISSIMO SALVATORE – Cefalù, August
Every August in Cefalù, a feast honours Santissimo Salvatore, also known as the Saviour of the Transfiguration and the Holder of Cefalu's Cathedral Basilica.
It is a festival that mixes the sacred worship with good, old-fashioned fun. As a procession is held to mark Santissimo and the bells ring out in his name, there is a fun event that involves a light-hearted competition – the aim is to find the victor who can walk a greasy pole to reach a flag at the end. The event is called Ntinna Mari – or the Antenna At Sea, with the pole suspended at near horizontal level over the waters of the pier.
FESTA DELLA MADONNA MARIA SS DEI MIRACOLI – Alcamo, August
The Feast of the Virgin Mary Miracle is regarded as one of the biggest religious and folk festivals in the region of Alcamo.
The event marks the miracle that happened on 21st June 1547, when it is said that an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared at the creek north of the city. A legend goes that a group of washer women escaped unharmed in the wake of falling stones. After men went to find out what was going on, they found an icon of the Virgin in the rubble of a tiny chapel.
The miracle is traditionally celebrated around the days surrounding the 21st. In addition to religious services and worship, there are artistic, cultural and musical events as well as a historical parade complete with vintage clothes and decorations.
FESTA DI SANTA ROSALIA - Palermo, 10th - 15th July
The patron Saint of Palermo is honoured in the middle of July in a festival that combines traditional religion, spectacle and history.
The event will see the carro trionfale bearing the statue of Santa Rosalia leave the square outside the local cathedral. Its destination is Foro Italico with a visit along the way to Quattro Canti, where the saint will be honoured by the city's mayor, VIPs and the organisers of the festival. Once the statue reaches its destination, music and fireworks will conclude the procession in colourful and vivid style.
On 15th July, relics of Santa Rosalia will be paraded through the streets of Palermo. The streets will also pay host to vendors, who will offer a wide variety of foods and goods, from potato croquettes to fruits to peas, beans and almonds.
FEAST OF SAINT AGATHA - Catania, February
One of the largest religious festivals in the world takes place the first weeks of February in Catania when it honors its patron saint, Sant’Agata. Some estimate that up to a million people line the streets to honor this martyred young woman with Sicilian roots.
Saint Agatha was a teenager from a wealthy family when she was approached by a Roman prefect. She refused his advances, and he had her tortured in many ways, including the severing of her breasts, which is why Saint Agatha is often depicted holding her amputated breasts on a platter. Indeed, she is the patron saint of bell-founders because of the shape of the severed breasts.
Saint Agatha was then sentenced to be burned at the stake, but an earthquake saved her from that fate; instead, she was sent to prison where St. Peter the Apostle appeared to her, healed her wounds, and filled her dreary prison cell with light.
Saint Agatha died in prison around 250 A.D. when she was just 15 years old. In the 11th century, her body was found to be “incorrupt,” i.e., showing no major signs of decomposition, and parts of her incorrupt body still exist today.
The Festa di Sant’Agata in Catania starts with Mass at dawn on 3 February; then a statue of Saint Agatha holding her relics is placed on a 40,000 pound silver fercolo, or carriage, which is pulled up Via San Giuliano by 5,000 men. The celebrations continue into Saint Agatha’s feast day of 5 February.
PROCESSIONE DEI MISTERI (PROCESSION OF MYSTERIES) - Trapani, Easter
The Procession of the Mysteries is held in Trapani in western Sicily. It starts at 2pm on Good Friday and continues for almost 24 hours. It is the longest religious event in Italy and one of the oldest.
Twenty floats carrying groups of statues, known as the ‘Misteri’ (Mysteries) that represent the events of the Passion and Crucifixion, are paraded through the city, starting out from and finishing at the Church of Del Purgatorio.