Italy, Easter and Holy Week in

Italy, Easter and Holy Week in

Italian tradition calls for giving one's home a thorough spring cleaning during Holy Week in preparation for the priest's visit and Easter blessing. Easter baking and other Easter food preparation as well as religious devotions occupy many Italians during this week.

Palm Sunday

Italy's Roman Catholic churches hold palm processions on Palm Sunday. At Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, the pope is carried aloft in a ceremony during which he blesses palm branches.

Maundy Thursday

Roman Catholic church services on Maundy Thursday feature footwashing ceremonies. In Rome the pope washes the feet of thirteen men. Twelve of the men represent Jesus' twelve apostles, the thirteenth represents an angel that, according to church tradition, appeared at the altar when Pope Gregory the Great officiated at the Last Supper service in the sixth century (for more on the Last Supper, see Maundy Thursday). In addition, churches prepare a special side altar, sometimes called a sepulchre, to house the remains of Thursday's Eucharist. At the end of the service the remains of the consecrated bread and wine are ceremoniously placed on this specially decorated altar. Devout Italians may visit seven of these decorated altars on the evening of Holy Thursday (see also Holy Sepulchre).

Good Friday

Religious processions wind their way through the streets of many towns and villages on Good Friday. Some of these solemn parades focus on Jesus'death and feature representations of Jesus'funeral bier. Many men are required to carry this often life-sized scene, mounted on top of a heavy platform. In addition to those who bear the platforms, others participate in the parade by carrying symbols of the Crucifixion, such as crosses, nails, crowns of thorns, and spears (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). Other Good Friday processions feature various scenes from the Passion story, that is, the story of Jesus' betrayal, judgment and execution (see also Judas; Pilate, Pontius). Still other parades focus on the Blessed Virgin Mary's grief and may feature lifesized statues of a tear-stained, black-robed Madonna accompanied by dozens or hundreds of black-garbed followers (see Mary, Blessed Virgin). In Sicily Good Friday processions depict the Virgin Mary's distressed search for her son, a legendary incident associated with the evening of Good Friday. These sorrowful parades may last all night and leave participants emotionally and physically drained.

Holy Saturday

Church services on Holy Saturday feature the blessing of water, the new fire ceremony, and the lighting of the paschal candle (see also Baptism; Easter Fires).

Easter Sunday

Many Italians associate Easter with spring vacations. The inclination to entertain oneself at Easter time is revealed in a common Italian saying, Natale con i suoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your family, Easter with your own choice of friends).

Italians enjoy wearing new clothes on Easter Sunday. If one can't afford a new outfit, then a new pair of shoelaces or a new hair ribbon will do.

The Italian tradition of crafting elaborate and delicious chocolate Easter eggs stretches back several centuries. Italian parents, however, do not perpetuate the myth that these eggs are delivered by the Easter Bunny. Instead Italians openly frequent confectioners' shops to select from a wide variety of chocolate eggs, many with toys and trinkets inside. In addition to crafting eggs for children, confectioners also prepare chocolate Easter eggs for grownups. These eggs contain gifts suitable for adults, ranging from costume jewelry to plane tickets and even keys to a new car. Some exclusive shops will permit customers to submit their own gifts which the chocolate maker will then hide inside a custom-made Easter egg. The city of Turin has a reputation for producing some of Italy's finest and most exclusive chocolate Easter eggs.

The lamb continues to serve as an important Easter symbol in Italy. Not only do many Italians prefer roast lamb as the main course of their Easter feast, but many Italian Easter tables also feature lambs molded out of butter or marzipan.

Italy also boasts many regional Easter specialties. Sicilians enjoy cas- sata, an elaborate cake featuring sweetened ricotta cheese, candied pumpkin, sponge cake, and almond paste. The people of Piedmont favor a kind of pie combining rice and fresh, spring greens. In Liguria many families look forward to torta pasqualina, a tart combining vegetables and cheese in a crust of phyllo pastry. Italians also dye Easter eggs, sometimes nesting them in special Easter loaves. Italy's regional cuisines have produced a variety of Easter breads. In Genoa bakers prepare pan dolce, a sweet bread made with raisins, pine nuts, and candied fruit peel. Chefs from Lombardy invented columba pasquale, a sweet bread filled with candied orange peels, raisins, and almonds which is baked in special dove-shaped molds. This bread has become a popular Easter treat throughout Italy.

In the city of Florence many Italians gather on Easter Sunday morning to watch a six-hundred-year-old ritual known as the "burning of the cart." At around ten o'clock in the morning an ox-drawn cart lurches into the plaza in front of the city's cathedral. The oxen are then detached from the cart, which carries a beautifully decorated, multistoried pyramid that is covered with fireworks. Assistants visit a nearby church where flints, which local legend identifies as coming from the tomb of Christ itself, are used to strike a flame. Then they ceremoniously carry the sacred flame back to the cathedral. Inside the cathedral a rocket made in the shape of a dove has been attached to a wire which runs from the cart through the cathedral doors and along the nave of the church. When the sacred flame lights its fuse, the dove rocket shoots along the wire out the church doors into the plaza and, hopefully, ignites the fireworks that festoon the cart. As the fireworks explode church bells, altar bells, and even cowbells begin to ring. The joyous din celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Easter Monday

Italians call Easter Monday Pasquetta, or "Little Easter." Many Italians celebrate it with family walks and barbecues or picnics in the countryside (see also Emmaus Walks). A traditional appetizer associated with Easter Monday combines a hard-boiled egg, salt, and bitter greens. These foods, also consumed during the Jewish holiday of Passover, remind diners of the bitterness of the Jewish exile in Egypt, recounted in the Bible's Book of Exodus.

Further Reading

Field, Carol. Celebrating Italy. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990. Hudgins, Sharon. "Breads for Christ." The World and I 15, 4 (April 1999): 162. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Toor, Frances. Festivals and Folkways of Italy. New York: Crown, 1953. Wolf, Burt. Gatherings and Celebrations. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Web Site

"Easter without a Peep," a brief article on Italian Easter foods by Faith Heller Willinger, posted at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002