Easter in Italy – Buona Pasqua!

Easter in Italy – Buona Pasqua!
    After a long winter, and after the 40 days of Quaresima (Lent), it is time to sniff the new blossoms, bask in the spring sun and brace yourself for Italian Easter! Like all holidays in Italy, Pasqua (Easter) has its own traditions, symbols and dishes that change slightly depending on the regions and cities
    you’re visiting. You know that Easter is coming when chocolate eggs, colomba and pastiera cakes, and sugar lambs, all wrapped in shiny paper and ribbons, start to pop out of nothing into pastry shop windows. These are some of the most typical Italian Easter sweet treats, and are quite easy to notice. Bunnies, birds and flowers also appear in the windows, announcing the arrival of spring. Some ancient Easter traditions are based on the religious aspect of the festivity, bringing in picturesque parades and prayers. The biggest, richest, and most famous religious processions are probably the Sicilian ones, where the hooded participants are members of religious brethrens; Sardinian celebrations are also very, very interesting, as they are a mixture of ancient culture and Spanish influences. The Way of the Cross, celebrated at the Colosseum in Rome on Good Friday – Image credit: Wikipedia Florence is famous for a traditional celebration, in which a big decorated cart loaded with fireworks is dragged through the city by two white oxen, and finally set on fire by the Archbishop, using a small puppet resembling a dove, that travels on a metal string from the main altar of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore to the cart. In Rome, the Pope himself does a Via Crucis in the center of the city. Lots of people take part in this big procession, which ends in the Coliseum, and usually takes place in the evening – with hundreds of candles flickering in the night. This event is broadcast by the main TV national channels. Other traditional ideas involve fewer prayers and more time spent with friends, according to the old proverb Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you like) and focus more on the culinary, playful and relaxing aspect of such festivals. Strolls, picnics and games are welcome! Palm Sunday procession Italy is a Catholic country so for those who believe, celebrations related to Easter start with Domenica delle Palme (Palm Sunday), in which people go to Mass and receive small blessed olive branches or beautifully weaved palms – these are used in some cities, but olive branches are more common. This is to celebrate and commemorate Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, when people greeted him shaking palms. Believers will keep those olive branches in their houses until the following year, when they will be burnt and replaced with new ones. On Monday, the so-called Settimana Santa (Holy Week) starts. On Thursday, that is called Giovedì Santo, people come back to church for another Mass, in which a priest symbolically washes 12 people’s feet on the altar, to commemorate what Jesus did with the Apostles before the Ultima Cena (Last Supper). After this Mass, all the altars of the church must be cleaned of every decoration or object. All but one, which is on the contrary heavily adorned because it will contain all the sacred hosts necessary for the Communion of the next day –Venerdì Santo (Good Friday)- when no new hosts can be consecrated. People can go visit that altar and pray in front of it.. This event is commonly called I Sepolcri, especially by older people. Passion procession A special Mass is held on Good Friday evening, in which the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) is reenacted. Each parish can choose to either organize a procession or a special representation, or to celebrate a somewhat simpler Mass that requires the reading of the whole passage of the Gospel, often read by several different people, as if it was a sort of play. This is when many cities and smaller towns organize huge, spectacular parades – there are more than 3000 in the whole country! The oldest is believed to be the one held in Chieti (Abruzzi), when on Good Friday, at dusk, the dead Christ is taken in procession, with 100 (yes, one hundred!) violinists playing Selecchy’s Miserere. Some processions are incredibly moving and dramatic, with mourning people walking and praying holding beads and candles, and actors reenacting the whole Passion of Christ. All the bells of Italy will remain still and silent until Holy Saturday midnight, when, once the Resurrection is announced, a cheerful peal of church bells can be heard in every city and town. In some towns, on Easter morning people reenact the first encounter of Christ and Mary after the Resurrection. This usually involves full-sized statues, transported by two groups of men. After having waited for a while, as if Mary was struggling to convince herself of the Resurrection of her son, the two groups start running toward each other, so the two characters meet and ideally hug each other, as they would do if they were real people. It is a very intense experience for some. People wait in silence. Emotion and tension build up. When the two statues finally meet and almost touch each other, everyone shouts for joy and bursts into applause. Easter breakfast, complete with colored egss! On Easter morning, some families like to eat a very rich breakfast, similar to English brunch, but still more Mediterranean – corallina (a type of salami), hard-boiled eggs, savory cakes with cheese, salami dices and vegetables and chocolate eggs can’t be missing. In the past all the dishes had to be blessed early in the morning, and it was very common for children to decorate hard- boiled eggs, and go with their family to get them blessed by the priest after the morning Mass. The family would then go back home and eat those painted eggs. As one can expect from the second most important religious festival of the year, Easter lunch is usually quite satisfying. Typical dishes include roasted lamb with potatoes, salads, special breads with cheese, quiches or vegetable cakes. As a dessert, colomba is a classic choice. It is a soft cake that contains candied orange peel, sometimes sultanas or chocolate pieces, and it is usually covered with a crunchy sugar glaze with sliced almonds and sugar crystals, or drizzled with chocolate bits. Its shape should resemble that of a dove, the symbol of peace, but if you’re not romantic enough, you will think it just looks like a fat, delicious cross. An Easter Egg (hopefully with extra goodies inside). Another typical treat is the chocolate egg, which is very popular among both adults and children, and are usually exchanged as gifts. They are believed to be an auspicious symbol, as they represent the renewal of life and fertility. They can weigh a few grams or several kilos, can be bought in supermarkets and bakeries, and usually contain a little surprise. Children eggs contain toys or stuffed animals, while adult versions usually contain small jewels or useful gadgets. It is also possible to buy the surprise yourself and ask the pastry chef to put it in! Pastiera was born in Naples, but is now appreciated all over Italy during Easter time. It smells like orange flowers, and its crunchy shortbread base encases a moist, delicate cream made of soft wheat grains with candied orange peel, ricotta cheese, and eggs. As you can imagine, it is very rich and delicious. It may look like a simple and humble-looking cake, but it actually takes a couple of days (or even more, depending on the grain used) and a lot of effort to prepare. Italian Children enjoy sugar lamb in their Easter baskets Last but not least, among traditional Easter products are agnellini di zucchero (lambs made of sugar paste) or agnellini di marzapane (marzipan lambs). It is almost a pity to eat them! The day after Easter is called Lunedì dell’Angelo (lit. “Angel’s Monday”) or Pasquetta (lit. “Little Easter”). Traditionally, Italians use this extra holiday (on a Monday too! How sweet that is!) to have a picnic in the countryside or in the city parks, using Sunday’s leftovers and picnic-friendly treats like frittata (omelet), cold dishes, savory cakes, and pasta or rice salads, nibbles, and of course, the last pieces of chocolate egg. This can be called scampagnata (campagna means “countryside”) but it doesn’t mean you have to go to the countryside! Lakes, nearby cities and the seaside are also popular locations for a Pasquetta mini-holiday. In some cities concerts, games and events are organized for this last day of vacation. On Tuesday, back to everyday life…sigh!

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