The 2 weeks leading up to Easter in Italy are among the busiest and exciting of times in the Italian calendar year, second only to Christmas. Of course there are the inevitable parades, processions and church services and bells, bells, bells tolling, heralding the end of lent and a time of renewal.
On Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter - marks the beginning of holy week) palm leaves and olive branches are placed outside houses and on Easter cakes. The palms signify the journey of Jesus into Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover, the palm leaves spread before him by the crowd as a sign of triumphal reign and to save him from the dust of the road. As palms are not readily available in Italy they are often replaced with branches from olive trees symbolising both local olive culture and peace.
Much less commercialised than in Australia, all over Italy cities, towns and villages have their own distinct traditions having evolved over time. Following are a few examples.
In Florence on the morning of Easter Sunday an antique cart packed with fireworks is set on fire – the bigger the explosion, its believed, will guarantee a good year ahead. The tradition started in 1096, following the return of a Florentine knight, Pazzino di Ranieri de’ Pazzi, who raised the Holy Cross banner in Jerusalem during the Crusades. For his bravery, he received pieces of flint from the Holy Sepulcher of Christ. Upon his return to Florence, these stones were used to light the Easter Vigil sacred fire and then ported around the streets of Florence.
Today Florentines commemorate the event with a procession, the 30-foot tall antique cart pulled by a team of white oxen and parade of 150 soldiers, musicians and other people dressed in 15th-century attire. The procession ends in Piazza del Duomo in front of Santa Maria del Fiore. On arrival, a dove-shaped rocket (La Colombina) holding an olive branch is shot towards a cart loaded with fireworks, setting off the scoppio (the boom). The annual event is meant to bring a bountiful harvest, stable civic life, and growing business.
In the Umbrian hill town of Panicale the Easter festivities draw big crowds to watch and take part in the games. Here, cheese is the star. Ruzzolone is played by rolling huge wheels of cheese, weighing about 4 kilos, around the village walls. The object is to get your cheese around the course using the fewest number of strokes. Following the cheese contest, there is a band in the piazza and of course, wine.
(Visit Panicale on tour with TIKI TOURS on the 'Enchanting Italy Uncovered' tour departing 27 September 2018)
Rome of course, hosting the Vatican state, at this time of year is a mecca for Catholic pilgrims. On Good Friday thousands gather in Saint Peter’s Basilica to listen to the Pope’s mass at 5 pm, and immediately following, the Pope starts his walk to remember the Christ’s Via Crucis with a candlelit procession starting at the Palatine Hill. After making 14 stops along the way to remember the walk of Christ and pray, the holy pontiff ends at the Colosseum. The beauty of this procession also lies in the gathering of many pilgrims with torches who follow in his footsteps: even for those who are do not consider themselves religious, this event is magical.
In Italy after all the religious celebrations, Easter Monday, known as 'La Pasquetta', is all about spending time with family and friends, traditionally leaving the towns and cities behind and getting out into the countryside to eat and relax outdoors. While some cities hold dances, free concerts, or unusual games, often involving eggs.