By Joe Cannavo
If you are Italian American and a devout Catholic who has never been to Italy you probably recognize the date of Aug. 15 as the Feast of the Assumption. It is the holiday when Roman Catholics believe the Virgin Mary is supposed to have ascended to heaven, and the Catholic Church celebrates this date as a Holy Day of Obligation to commemorate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, thus a major holiday in Italy. If on the other hand you have lived in Italy or you have spent an August in Italy, you probably know that date as the celebration of Ferragosto, which in reality lacks much of religious sanctity of Assumption to what has become what many refer to, even sarcastically, as the day that closes Italy down for the rest of the summer. This idea of Italy being closed has some validity because the entire month of August is generally taken as holiday from professionals, offices and shops just for leisure time and relaxation. Typically, businesses that do stay open the first half of August close for the second half of the month. Everything opens again in September.
Italians and vacationers visiting Italy can expect to experience added crowds at the beaches and lots of traffic along the coastal roads, but many festivals of parades, food, music and fi reworks throughout Italy are well worth the travel getting to. In fact, Ferragosto is considered to be next to Christmas, Easter and New Year’s as an important holiday in Italy. As is a tradition during holiday periods in Italy one can expect there to be a great festival to go with the festive celebration. Ferragosto is no exception. The one most notable festival during Ferragosto is the Palio of Siena, taking place on the Aug. 15. It is the biggest horse race in Italy and, by far, the most important one in August. Folks from all over the world travel to Siena in Tuscany to see this festival and large numbers of visitors include the Palio in the “bucket list” of things to do in Italy.
On the other hand, a very large majority of Italian Americans and native Italians who now call the United States their home don’t even notice when Ferragosto comes and goes. It’s a working day like any other. However, if one ventures deep into the remaining Italian enclaves in the United States, it’s possible to find festive celebrations commemorating the day, mainly religious as relates to the Feast of the Assumption.
It might seem as though in the United States Italians commemorate the religious aspect of the day while in Italy it’s all fun and frolic. It’s true that a majority of Italians skip church and head of to the beach and summer fun, but there are events that take place that clearly have the religious fervor one comes to expect when they think of Italy.
These celebrations include colorful processions through the streets and firework displays that mark the celebration of the Feast of the Assumption in Italy. In Sicily and rural areas outside Rome, a bowing procession is the day’s main event. A statue of the Virgin Mary is carried through the town to a ceremonial arch of flowers, where a group of people holding a statue of Christ awaits her arrival. Both statues are inclined toward each other three times, and then the Christ figure precedes the figure of Mary back to the parish church for a special benediction.
For visitors who plan to visit Italy during the Ferragosto period besides the Palio, there are some other events that take place that can make Ferragosto a great time to visit, despite the stigma that Italy is closed during that period. You’ll find celebrations in many places in Italy on this day and the days before and after, often including music, food, parades or fi reworks.
Here are a few of the most popular Ferragosto festivals held across Italy on Aug. 15:
- Rome’s Gran Ballo di Ferragosto fills Rome’s squares with live dance performances. There’s a different type of dance in each square.
- Diano Marina in Liguria holds a festival of the sea with a huge fi reworks display.
- In Tuscany, Montepulciano holds a historical pageant and games.
- Cappelle sul Tavo, near Pescara on the Abruzzo coast, celebrates with the Palio delle Pupe, huge effigies paraded through the streets at night. During the procession, they eventually explode with fi reworks.
- Sassari in Sardinia holds the Festa dei Candelieri that dates back to the 16th century. In this exciting festival on Aug. 14 and 15, you’ll see a race with teams of men bearing huge candles. In addition to the festivities held on Aug. 15, many Ferragosto festivals continue through Aug. 16.
- Siena, in Tuscany, runs their second Palio race in the town’s main square.
- Girifalco in Calabria celebrates the Feast Day of Saint Rocco on Aug. 16 However you celebrate it, enjoy it as a time of relaxation from work.