Easter in Italy

Buona Pasqua tutti! Easter in Italy is in full swing. Preparations for the celebrations have been happening all over the country, many Italians are in vacation mode with a full week of vacation surrounding the holiday. I’ve been in Sicily and am in Venice at the moment, so I thought I’d let you know a bit about what it’s like to be here at this time of year.

Easter is the most important holiday on the Catholic calendar (nope, it’s not Christmas), celebrating the resurrection of Christ. As with Christians all over the world, Italians finish out the Lenten season first with Palm Sunday. Domenica delle Palme is a minor event compared with Easter, but it is considered the third most important holiday on the calendar. It celebrates the day that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Catholic Churches hand out palm fronds for blessing at mass, but in Sicily they do it in style. Rather than just having the simple palm frond, Sicilian children take them and braid them in elaborate ways. The market square in Ragusa had stalls selling them in the days before, and in Modica there was a little boy, maybe about 8 years old, with a display set up on the gate in front of the church. I’m a sucker for kids selling hand made things, so I asked the little boy to pick out one for me that he made himself. For €3 I got a little work of art to bring into church for the blessing. 

 Good Friday is the day that we remember the story of Christ’s crucifixion. Praying the stations of the cross is a common way to observe the day, the Pope does it in the grandest of locations, at the Colosseum in Rome. In Italy, many towns both big and small have processions with representations of the stations of the cross. I recall seeing the procession in Cortona some years ago and it scared the bejesus out of me. These processions usually involve life-sized statues or actual people recreating Christ in his path to the cross, and the scenes are carried by hooded figures with pointed caps, similar to the KKK. They are usually candlelit processions, which adds greatly to the atmosphere. The most famous procession on Good Friday in Italy is the one at Trapani, on the northwest coast of Sicily. The procession, called “I Misteri”  lasts for an amazing 24 hours. I was there for the warm-up last week. 

  Little boys wandered the street with their own, small scale religious scene on their shoulders, stopping to ask for contributions for the church. Their gait in carrying the scene was exactly like that of the adults, a slow march with a heavy sway. The large band was practicing the music used on Good Friday, which all sounded like macabre funeral dirges. 

 The church, which houses the sculptures year-round, was buzzing with activity in preparation, tidying up the sculptures and decorating them with fresh flowers.

Beginning on the Thursday before Easter, most Italians take the week off. I think most Americans probably stay at home for Easter or go to grandma’s, but many people in Europe take the holiday as a time for a little vacation. Here in Venice, the crowds are really shocking. It seems like it could be June or July, the absolute height of the season. Hotels and restaurants are jammed, and even normally quiet spots on the islands are packed with visitors. The fun part is the children. I don’t normally see tons of kids in Italy, certainly not on family vacations. This week, though, every other tourist is a kid and most of the tourists are Italian.

Easter itself is a day for dressing up and going to mass. The churches here will usually display their greatest treasures for the holiday, perhaps a piece of a relic or an altarpiece that is normally hidden. After church it is time for Easter lunch. The meal typically consists of the things that we also associate with Easter- the first vegetables of the season and lamb. I have planned an elaborate Easter dinner at my favorite Venetian restaurant, Osteria Bentigodi in Cannareggio. We will have sliced meats to start, then artichoke pasta, lamb, veggies and a Columba cake for dessert.  

 The Columba is a cake which is theoretically shaped like a dove, although it sort of looks like a blob to me. It’s an egg bread, similar to the Christams Pannettone, but with only candied orange inside. It is divine. I love to have it for breakfast after Easter is over, with a nice cappuccino. You can bet I’ll be skulking around the half-priced bakery racks on Monday morning.

  Kids have a good time on Easter in Italy just as kids do in the US. Instead of the Easter Bunny bringing treats (an idea so absurd that I cannot believe I bought that one as a kid) children get huge chocolate eggs from family members. The eggs all have prizes inside, typically toys that the kids need to put together. Adults may get an egg too, often with a grown-up prize, such as a bracelet or a charm. Really lucky girls get fancy chocolate eggs with diamond rings inside, although I wonder about the consumption rate of engagement rings in this country.

After the food and religious aspect has died down, many Italian families have a tradition with Easter eggs. They will dye and paint eggs just like we do, but instead of hiding them for an egg hunt, they play war. The game is best played in large families, and there will often be a prize at the end for the victor. Family members each take their painted eggs and smash them against another person’s egg. If your egg breaks, you’re out. If not, you take on another victor. The last egg standing (or not cracked) gets a prize. That sounds like a heap of egg salad sandwiches on Monday morning.

Monday is also a holiday here, it’s called Pasquetta, or little Easter. This is probably the favorite day for many Italians. This is the day to go out, or “vai fuori” with your family. Sort of our equivalent of a Sunday drive, many Italians will go to a scenic spot for a picnic or nice lunch, typically dressed to the nines. In my experience, this is the most crowded day of the year for tourism…but Italians being tourists in their own home. Not a bad idea to add a second holiday in for family fun, but there are many good traditions here that I’d like for us Americans to adopt. 

  I wish you all a very happy Easter, may the bunny fill your basket with good treats. As for myself, unfortunately I’ll be away from my family at home, but instead with my tour group/temporary family, drinking Spritz and stuffing my face with Columba. 

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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

3 replies on “Easter in Italy”

  1. Thanks for the wonderful story of Easter traditions in Italy. It’s amazing how each country celebrates the most important date in the lives of Christians. A blessed Easter to you and your tour group

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