By far the most spectacular time of year to visit Sicily has to be in the springtime, as it is filled with sunshine, freshness and the pageantry of Easter adds a distinctive colour and theatricality to the island.
Easter in Italy certainly isn’t all chocolate eggs and bunnies (even though they have them here too, filled with surprise gifts inside, children often ignore the chocolate to get to the present inside, but that’s another story).
The magic of Easter in Sicily for me comes out of the traditions which are adhered to with great love, passion and dedication by all Sicilian’s. Easter is an even bigger celebration than Christmas here as it represents the promise of a new beginning, the end of winter is ushered in by a crisp and golden spring. And it is all happening much earlier than usual this year.
Easter in Sicily
Celebrations in Sicily for ‘Pasqua’ are filled with ancient rites and traditions which are as colourful and variegated as the island itself.
Holy week all over the isle is filled with religious celebrations, processions, parades led by confraternities of artisans in their particular costumes, re-enactments of the martyrdom of Jesus Christ and the resurrection which are all a part of an elaborate pageant characterising the death of Winter and joy of rebirth which the promise of Spring brings with it each year.
Celebrations like Trapani’s procession of the Misteri re-enacts scenes from the passion of Christ, with a procession of heavy wooden statues depicting different scenes from this eternal story. This manifestation together with similar celebrations in the provinces of Caltanissetta and Enna are at Sicily’s geographical and traditional heart, together with many other public performances of Via Crucis in most towns around the island.
As usual with most things in Sicily, Easter is not simply a religious celebration it is also tinged with pagan elements, such as the Diavolata at Adrano (Catania) and the Judei of San Fratello (Messina) which date back many hundreds of years with their own distinct characters who exorcise themselves in manifestations of battles against the devil and evil. All terribly melodramatic and evocative of the medieval tradition of the Passion play which was used to draw people towards the church.
Adrano’s Diavolata in the province of Catania is the performance of an ancient religious play, written in 1728 by a local religious brother, it acts out the eternal battle between good and evil. The focus is the struggle with several different devils and St Michael the Archangel who not only manages to defeat them after the resurrection but also gets them to praise the Madonna and God.
On the evening before Easter, there is the flight of the Angel at Adrano, where a terrified looking girl is strapped in and hoisted along a tightrope across the local square to meet the statue of the freshly resurrected Christ to recite a piece of text welcoming and praising him. Terrorised children are only a part of the spectacle of Easter in Sicily which seemingly verges on the absurd at times.
At the apex of the grotesque Baroque characters of Sicily’s Santa Pasqua are the Judei of the hilltop town of San Fratello, deep in the province of Messina. These flocks of hooded brightly dressed men take over the village and disturb the solemn funeral procession on the morning of Good Friday.
The ancient town of San Fratello became a French (Norman) colony in the early middle ages and it is the home to these strangely dressed men who gather out of the ether and tie together many strands of history in all of their colour, practical jokes and loud trumpet playing. In fact even the local dialect has more in common with French than Italian.
The costumes are handed down from father to son. The bright red is a pseudo military style, complete with elaborate helmets, bright yellow stripes, lapels and intricate beading work, they are living breathing works of folk art, echoing the vibrant designs of the carretto Siciliano.
The most intriguing part of the Judei’s costume is the hood with black eyes, yellow triangle-shaped noses and long black tongue, with silver studs punched into the fabric in the design of a cross, hanging down from under their fabric moustaches like the dastardly villains who tie innocent women to railway tracks in early black and white movies.
Their costumes are a collage from history, their music as loud and confusing as their apparel, the Judei escort a wooden statue of the crucified Christ, as the procession passes they begin to bray out with their trumpets and form circles around the main sidewalks of the town playing fragments from popular folk songs, opera and other segments of noise in a unique assault on the senses.
A deafening confusion seems frightening, but this pandemonium is the most life affirming chaos I’ve ever seen. This celebration has gone on uninterrupted for generations, it went on during both world wars. The Sanfratellani have been called ‘non catholic’ and ‘devils,’ yet these unique characters make them love their own unique celebrations.
Above all the children are in amongst the bedlam, they dream about wearing the costume together with their fathers.