Santa Pasqua in Sicily is filled with ancient rites and traditions which are as colourful and variegated as the island itself.
The week leading up to Easter is brimming with religious celebrations, food preparations, processions and parades. Each festival is part of an elaborate pageant mixing religion and paganism in the festivities which mark the end of Winter and the rebirth of Spring.
A visit to any small town has its own versions of the Sicilian religious traditions. The week beginning with intricately woven palm fronds which are blessed for Palm Sunday, reaching a dramatic climax with passionate performances and ends with the consumption of delicate marzipan sculptured lambs or picureddi, bread or biscuits decorated with dyed eggs, many traditional dishes and endless desserts in the usual abundance of Sicily’s table.
If you are planning a trip to Sicilia specifically to experience the festivities, here is a list of the ten most spectacular celebrations of the island.
I Diavulazzi di Pasqua: Adrano, Catania
Easter at Adrano in the province of Catania is focused around the Diavolata which is a performance of an ancient religious play.
Written in 1728 by a local religious brother it is performed on the evening of Easter Sunday.
The Diavolata acts out the eternal battle between good and evil. The central part of the drama focuses on the struggle between several devils and St Michael the Archangel, who not only manages to defeat the evil doers but also gets them to praise God.
On the evening before Easter, there is the flight of the Angel, where a terrified looking adolescent girl is strapped in and hoisted along a tightrope across the local square to meet the statue of the freshly resurrected Christ and recites a piece of text welcoming and praising him.
Gli Incappucciati: Enna
Nineteenth-century German Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said to have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.
But to understand Sicily you need to go to the geographical centre because the island’s true identity is to be found there.
The province of Enna is known as the belly button of Sicily and is the home to Sicily’s most ancient traditions.
The sinister hooded Incappuciati are the central characters of Enna’s Easter celebrations which dates back to the Spanish period from the 15th and 17th centuries.
The male, only members of the fifteen various local confraternities, participate in a well-organised series of processions, prayers and worship in the local Cathedral.
Pashkët: Piana degli Albanesi, Palermo
At Piana degli Albanesi and nearby towns in the region of Palermo Easter takes on elements of the Greek Orthodox faith.
The celebrations are based on the ancient Byzantine church, in fact, many of the rites performed use the Greek and Albanian languages.
The towns of Contessa Entellina, San Cristina Gela, Mezzojuso and Palazzo Adriano also share this particular ethnic characteristic to their Easter festivities.
These towns traditions reflect their history as an ancient colony of people from Albania, refugees from the Balkans who fled religious persecution during the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century.
In 1482, after several attacks from the Ottomans, the Christian Albanians were forced to the Adriatic coast where they hired ships from the Republic of Venice, escaped by sailing and managed to reach Sicily.
These refugees were eventually granted land in the mountains above the city of Palermo where they were able to maintain their Greek Orthodox religion and traditions without being persecuted.
The religious rites for Easter at Piano degli Albanesi end with the Pontificale, a grand parade of women in elegant traditional dress which weaves its way through the main streets of the town, stopping at the Cathedral.
White doves are released at the end of the parade in amongst the songs of the local dialect and the distribution of red coloured eggs, symbolic of new life and of the bloodshed during the crucifixion.
Il ballo dei diavoli: Prizzi, Palermo
At Prizzi in the province of Palermo, several devils and death itself disturb the celebrations on Easter day with their macabre dance, until they are eventually defeated by other angelic characters.
The devils are dressed in one piece red jumpsuits, with a large round flat faced masks complete with a long fabric tongue, covered in goatskin and with a chain in their hands. While death is dressed in yellow with a crossbow in hand. A fascinating mixture of dance, paganisim and religion which is so common in a Sicilian Easter celebration.
I Giudei: San Fratello, Messina
The apex of the grotesque characters in Sicily’s Santa Pasqua are the Giudei of San Fratello. The flocks of hooded brightly dressed men take over the village and disturb the solemn funeral procession on the morning of Good Friday and other marches during the week.
These characters come out of Sicily’s history, with all of their colour, practical jokes and loud trumpeting. The costumes are handed down from father to son and are in a bright red pseudo military style, complete with elaborate helmets, shiny yellow striped lapels and intricate beading work, which make them like living breathing works of folk art echoing the vibrant designs of the traditional carretto Siciliano.
The Medieval Norman colony of San Fratello is the home to these strangely dressed men who gather out of the ether and tie together many strands of history. The deafening confusion they create seems frightening, but this uproar is life-affirming chaos.
This celebration has gone on uninterrupted for generations, it went on during both world wars. Thanks to these Giudei the Sanfratellani have been called ‘non-catholic’ and ‘devils’ yet these characters are a central part of San Fratello’s identity.
I misteri: Trapani
Trapani’s Misteri procession re-enacts scenes from the passion of Christ, with a parade of detailed massive wooden statues depicting different scenes from this eternal story.
The celebration at Trapani is probably the most well known of the Misteri based festivities, which occur throughout the island, simply because of the dimension of the statues and the incredible artistry of the figures which are extremely emotive.
The Misteri, depict the passion of Christ and the symbolic elements also associated with the story. Side by side with the artworks are objects like spears, hammers and a crown of thorns in an extended religious metaphor, like an elaborate Mystery play from the Middle Ages.
The festivities in Trapani begin on the Tuesday after Palm Sunday with the procession of the Madonna of the Pieta’ known locally as the Massari. An artwork which dates back to the sixteenth century which is displayed within an ornate golden frame. The canvas depicts Maria Addolorata who is looking to her left on a dark background with many holy relics.
Gli archi di Pasqua: San Biagio Palatani, Agrigento
Apart from the religious and pagan elements to Easter, there is also an immense dedication to decoration and artistry.
At San Biagio Platani the city’s streets are taken over by elaborately constructed archways, domes, bells and religious artworks.
In the months before Easter, the two major historical confraternities of San Biagio work to create a massive piece of public folk art.
Using only natural materials to decorate the streets with arches, all with religious and natural symbolism like bamboo, weeping willow, asparagus, laurel leaves, rosemary, cereals, dates and bread.
The series of decorated archways become increasingly elaborate as they reach the central part of the town, which becomes the focal point of the Easter Sunday procession as the Madonna and the resurrected Christ meet at precisely at the centre of the decorations.
Lu Signuri delle Fasci: Pietraperzia, Enna
One of the most elaborate and complex processions on the island is that of Pietraperzia near the centre of the island where the Signuri di li fasci creates an intricate piece of liturgical performance.
On Good Friday, a traditional crucifix is fixed to a big log, and a complex series of linen strips are wrapped around its base.
The white strands are held by devout followers as the procession makes it’s way delicately through the streets, accompanied by prayers in the local dialect. The fabric strands are reminiscent of medieval Maypoles, but the performance is unique to Sicily.
Usually, those who hold onto the forty-meter long fabric strips are either asking for a miracle or giving thanks to God for a divine intervention which has already occurred or are maintaining a family tradition.
The cavalcade is accompanied by the local confraternity in their hooded monk costumes, who carry the statue of the Madonna dell’Addolorata.
La Settimana Santa: Caltanissetta
Easter week at Caltanissetta is genuinely amazing, Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday is a week filled with elaborate performances, baroque processions, reenactments of the last supper, the stations of the cross and traditional rites which reflect Sicily’s ancient and at times aristocratic past.
Palm Sunday sees the Processione of Gesù Nazareno, where a statue of Christ is placed within an elaborate boat shaped flower decorated float and carried around the city in a recreation of Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Nazareth. Easter Monday there is a performance of the Last Supper.
While on Wednesday the procession of the Maestranza sees a parade of local military, noble families and artisan guilds of the city in a blend of civil and religious elements.
On the dark funeral day of Good Friday while the city is in mourning and the Cristo Nero (or darkened Christ- because of its colour) becomes the focus of a profoundly religious procession.
La corsa di San Leone: Sinagra, Messina
I cannot possibly make up a list of suggestive Easter celebrations without mentioning my own little Sicilian village which combines the love of the local patron saint San Leone with the joy of Easter.
San Leone is taken on an elaborate procession from his country church, of the same name, to the main parish church of San Michele Arcangelo in the heart of the town. As the large wooden statue is mounted on a massive wooden float carried by the Confraternity of San Leone.
When the Saint arrives at the bridge at the beginning of the town, the statue runs over the bridge accompanied by suggestive fireworks. The running of the Saint recalls one of his miracles.
While San Leone was the Bishop of Catania, he confronted a magician who claimed to be more powerful than God.
The Saint challenged him to a literal baptism of fire, which saw the magician burnt to death while Saint Leo remained unscathed by the flames of a bomb fire.
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