San Fratello is perched in the rambling Sicilian highlands, nesting itself in the crown of the Nebrodi Mountains, which run along the Tyrrhenian coast and amble their way towards Palermo. The road on the way to the town negotiates its way through the mountains like a complex obstacle course; every car climbing up navigates hairpin curves and steep ascents.
Driving along the main street of San Fratello, after climbing up to the town, I see a Giudeo for the first time.
The masked men line up on either side of the road, and some climb on the top of a wide wall. They are waiting to begin their celebration. I watch them clearing out their instruments of spittle, in anticipation of the arrival of the mourners, who can be heard from around the corner, droning out the rosary prayers and singing out the refrains of a traditional procession hymn, in a disciplined drill.
The procession appears from around the corner; A large crucifix is mounted on a large float and is carried by the modest pilgrims, who continue their somber chants. The Christ’s head is bowed down; hands nailed to the cross.
The Giudei launch into their trumpeting with a distorted joy; first in a warbled drone and then with a frenetic, deranged glee. Different groups form small clusters to disrupt the mournful procession with their music; a loud braying begins and echoes along the corridors formed by these extraordinary dramatis personae.
Soon the solemnity of the procession is overpowered by the Giudei’s racket, and they overtake not only the march but also the whole town, filling San Fratello with their harsh trumpet playing and acrobatic stunts. Despite the distractions caused by the disguised men, the worshippers in the procession continue to recite their Good Friday prayers, as they run the gauntlet.
They all have a Klu Klux Klan sack masks over their faces, always in a bright red, with circled black eyes, designed and cut out like a Zorro mask. The sbirrijan, or hood, is completed by a long, yellow, cartoon like nose. Some have dark moustaches, like old black and white movie villains, ready to tie helpless damsels to railway tracks, while twigging at their whiskers and sniggering at their own dastardliness.
The tongues stand out most on the Giudei’s masks; they are long, hanging down about ten centimeters, with a cross at the center of each one in silver studs. It is this symbolism, together with the name ‘Giudei,’ which suggests that these masked men represent a synthesis of the Jewish leaders and the Roman military that condemned Jesus to death; the black tongue a symbol of the hearsay and deception that occurred during the schizophrenic turn of public opinion, which according to the Bible led to the condemnation of Jesus.
The truth is no one really knows the origins of their striking costumes worn only at Easter. The costumes are lovingly embroidered and embellished through the year’s and handed down from father to son.
The Giudei (or Jews) of the Easter celebration of San Fratello are a grotesque parody of the ethnic minorities of the Arabs and Jews in Sicily during the Norman period. The Norman colonists of this town created a celebration to exorcise Sicily of non-Catholic minorities.
As the tradition of the Diavolata evolved into part of San Fratello’s culture, the initial significance and purpose of this celebration was slowly forgotten. With the spread of Catholicism in Sicily, the irreverent mockery of the Giudei festival resulted in the popular belief the ‘San Fratellani’ were ‘tutti turchi,’ the term ‘Turk’ in Sicilian referring to enemies of the Christian faith.
The Giudei begin their celebration around eleven o’clock on Good Friday morning and continue their rampage around San Fratello, playing their eclectic music, blocking traffic, and creating general confusion. As the feast continues, the men begin to mix their playing with alcohol, and become ever more rowdy, and then begin to play practical jokes like hanging off street signs.
Around midday the Giudei begin to peter out at the end of the main street, to turn around and mingle at bars and side streets, or chat with friends and family in the main square, resting up for the continued Easter festivities.
A more detailed version of this essay was published in Sweet Lemons 2: International writings with a Sicilian accent edited by Venera Fazio and Delia De Santis. I urge you to get a copy from Amazon, here.