Full disclosure: I am Sicilian, so it’s rather in the handbook that I must love the sensuality and quirkiness that make Italy, Italy. And like any great lover, the object of my desire will astonish, frustrate, admonish, infuriate and romance me until I go the way of the Caesars. Spatially comparable to my present home of California, Italy is wise, ravishing, exquisite and incomparable: sultry Sophia Loren amalgamated with the brazenness of Lady Gaga. In “altre parole, non c’è paragone.” “In other words, there is no comparison.”
Full disclosure 2.0: I’m not Catholic. (But I play one in art class.) I’m not a member of any organised religion, yet I’ve studied the big ones via art. What was it then, that overwhelmed my heart and all that is giddily innocent of childhood that day my roommate Chelsea and I walked into a Roman La Standa supermercato
and Colomba boxed “dove” cakes to flood Rome and rival the construction of the Bridge of Sighs.
If you’re vacillating even for a moment, the cakes veritably enfold their ribboned handle into your yours. They’re the culinary equivalent of well-turned out, Moschino-clad Italian revellers ready for travel.
Have my paisani lost their minds (again)?(still?)!I marvelled at the detonation of sugar and extravagant cellophane wrappings. Chelsea and I were at the shops the day before and all was normal. This morning, in the month before Carnevale, a unicorn had sneezed and produced tiers of wondrous colourfully designed confections.
The city and country had even more of magical atmosphere. But that’s what Italy DOES, I reasoned to myself: furnish exquisitely fashioned oggetti d’arte to the rest of the (sometimes) dernier cri-starved world. (Where would we be without the Lamborghini Murcielago? C’mon, you know it’s true.)
Having said that, Easter is not the bunny-heavy commercial holiday it is in the USA. Rather it’s a brilliant brew of religious devotion + secular fêtes + traditional foods that makes Easter in Italy so gobsmackingly intoxicating.
1. Don’t look for the Easter Bunny. Italians will think you’re two bricks short of a load.
2. Chocolate is well represented here, but don’t even contemplate Cadbury crème or Reese’s peanut butter eggs.
3. You will find games with eggs, but not the Easter egg roll on the president’s lawn (partly because he has no lawn, but that’s a different article). Eggs are symbolic in Italy as the sign of resurrection of Christ and of spring. Not of the hiding of said eggs so grandchildren will have something to do between the ham and the chocolate mousse.
4. Don’t expect to find a ham on the dinner table. Lamb, yes.
5. Do look for elaborate Catholic processions involving flaming effigies of the cross and of Mary and Jesus (the largest Good Friday parade is in Enna, Sicily;
7. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scoppio_del_carro) when on Easter Sunday, priests pack an antique cart full of explosives and throw a lit rocket 🚀 into it, symbolising good luck for the coming year; the Misteri di Trapani, Sicily,
8. the longest lasting Pasqua procession (duration: 24 hours), replete with games involving rolling eggs, running with eggs, relays with eggs, eating the most eggs, getting sick off of eating too many eggs….Embrace the feeling, “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi.” “Christmas with family; Easter with whomever you like. Being a holiday which runs the length of the boot, it’s a perfect time to search out hotels with flexible checking in and out times. (Links below.) You and your family might be making yours a roaming holiday, sampling Easter in several Italian cities. Flex-book.com has you covered.
Being a tic remiss on my Easter traditions, I set out to fill in the gaps. The two foot tall Kinder eggs made me do it.
About 80% of Italians identify as Catholic with with over 1.000 Catholic churches in Rome alone. Easter is the most popular celebration (trading spots selectively with Christmas). In 2017, the Lenten season beginning February 11, reaches a partying crescendo with Mardi Gras / Carnevale on Tuesday, February 28. Lent culminates on Easter Sunday, April 16. Most Italian cities hold Carnevale, yet it is most renowned in Venice and Rome. If you fancy spending time in especially Venice or Rome, be wise and book far in advance as hotels book quickly and prices rise steeply closer to the festivities of Carnevale on February 28. (In 2018, Carnevale falls on February 13; Easter Sunday is April 1!)
Carnevale is the time for unabashed partying before the fasting Lenten season. Heaps of Christians flood churches the day after Carnevale ends, Ash Wednesday, to repent for their sins and to receive the symbolic holy cross of ashes on the forehead. Holy Week, the last week before Easter, sees special masses on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and on Easter Sunday, La Pasqua, itself. Easter Monday, La Pasquetta, is also a public holiday. Traditionally begun in medieval years, Easter traditions really gained a foot-hold in 17th century cities like Venice and Rome. (Rome hosted a riderless horse race annually up the main artery in the city; its how Via del Corso got its name.) Nowadays, with the horse race deemed too dangerous, there are more game playing and puppet shoes featuring Arlequino, Pulcinella and Colombina around Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo and Piazza di Spagna.
During the festivities, most museums are open, yet most shops and restaurants are shuttered. Holy Week enjoys a symbiotic balance of solemn processions and exuberant cultural events. Statues of Mary and Jesus are put on display in public squares and paraded through the streets.
When Easter arrives, Lenten fasting ends and Italy veritably strips (Lamborghini) gears from honouring religious icons, to holding bacchanalian sprees of traditional foods, costumes and fireworks in the city streets. Masqued balls, concerts, and games involving Easter eggs take place on Easter Monday.
Most famously are the festivities in Venice, which metamorphoses into that idiosyncratic, preternatural mise-en-scène of spooky fog
and murky canals, replete with masqued, flamboyantly costumed citizens preening in laneways and piazze.
The Venetians in their medieval habiliments move so deliberately dramatically, you won’t need tickets to La Scala: the real blood pumping opera was free and all around us. We had done an Alice-In-Wonderland into a late Renaissance living diorama. Venetians pride themselves on artisanal masks, lovingly constructed and worn over hundreds of years, freeing citizens to wander their cities as whomever they desired.
Status and gender could be suspended for the celebrations. The festivities in the city signified citizens’ capability to be “king for a day,” and subvert quotidian social caste roles by wearing masques and playing mischievous games.
Bauta fulfils the role of anonymising political processes for free, equal and secret ballots in modern democracies. Il Medico della Peste is one of the most recognisable characters, with its long beak fashioned as a method of preventing the the spread of disease. Arlequino (Harlequin), Colombina, the Court Jester and Pulcinella are popular peasant characters of the commedia dell’arte, lacking reason yet full of emotion. Children don Zorro masques and any ruffly princess costume Disney has on offer.
Chelsea and I needed to find refuge from the ethereal night and creepy denizens in fancy dress. We had lost our cross-dressing boyfriends in the mêlée (I categorically hate it when my boyfriends look better in my clothes than I do). We abandoned our perch on the Ponte Rialto, where we had drained a bottle of Chianti, to squeeze our internal organs inside a raucous Venetian bar. Soon cichetti (Italian tapas) plonked on our table accompanied next by omnipresent carafes of purple teeth-staining three day-old wine. Thronged with people, stupidly drunk and unable to move for the crowd, it was the best meal of the trip, and the meal for which I have the least recollection. Did we even pay??
Back in Rome for the lead up to Easter . To be honest, and I’m not judging, but I never noticed grand gestures of holy gastronomic sacrifices on the part of my paisani. Which is cool; I was a returning citizen, lucky enough to be there to learn and enjoy, not brought in to be Antonin Scalia.
The Pope delivers a yearly mass at 16.30 on Good Friday at a different church each year. The mass is followed by a papal penitential procession. Santa Sabina will hold it in 2017, and book tickets in advance as it’s a popular and free event. Accept the fact that you won’t be able to escape the Pope during Easter in Rome.
An ecumenical service at 18.30 at the Oratorio di San Francesco del Caravita unites Catholics and Anglicans who receive the traditional marking of a cross of ashes upon their foreheads, symbolising “from dust you came and unto dust you shall return.”
This is meant to prepare worshippers for the 40 day Lenten season ahead. (Forty is a special Biblical number signifying Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness–there are really 46 days but the wink is that Sundays don’t count.) This solemn and poignant time is followed by Easter (or Holy) Week, in which the faithful “focus their minds on the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.”
Easter in Rome is one of most jubilant and emotional times to visit the Eternal City. As it’s in the “shoulder” travel season, airfare may be less and certainly the city experiences less obnoxious tourists than in the hot summer months. Weather in April in mutable, so pack in layers: ladies, a head scarf wouldn’t go amiss and gents, a nice tie and jacket is always welcome at the paragons of liturgical services.
It’s a very oxymoronic time in Italy as the solemn processions are juxtaposed with fabulous feasting and exquisite treats only found in country during Holy Week.
Maundy Thursday (April 13, 2017), Good Friday and Black Saturday (bells at midnight announcing the Resurrection of Christ) culminate in Easter Sunday (called the Easter Triduum, or “three days” in Latin). Worshippers try to visit as many churches and sepulchres as possible, participating in the ceremony that reflects, “Christ’s prayerful vigil the night before his crucifixion.” The walk down the Via Crucis on Good Friday echoes the path Christ took to on the Via Dolorosa towards his inevitable death.
tapestries and altars covered in regal purple fabric adorn these churches.
Oddly enough, Good Friday is the most holy day in Italian Easter but is not a public holiday: they prefer to save their free days for revelling on Easter Sunday and Monday’s festivities. All the way up and down the boot of the country, ceremonies to commemorate Christ’s resurrection.
This year, the Pope leads mass for cardinals and high Church officials in St Peter’s Square at 17.00.
The big dance scene comes as the Pope leads a fire-lit procession on the Via Crucis at 21.00 from the Colosseum to the Palatine Hill, with stops at the 14 stations of the cross. He says prayers as a cross blazes on fire across the Roman sky. This is definitively one of the most dramatic moments of Holy Week for the faithful.
Easter Sunday services begin in the mysterious dark of countless churches and escalate to critical mass in a blaze of candles and incense, symbolising Christ’s resurrection. At 20.30, the Pope presides over mass in the Vatican, “when he blesses the ‘new fire’ in the atrium of St Peter’s Basilica,” and blesses the Eucharist once more.
Free tickets are required for the 10.00 am service. The Pope’s address to the believers in St Peter’s Square, from his official window in the Vatican. The mass culminates with the Pope offering his Urbi et Orbi benediction. (Wikipaedia: Urbi et Orbi (“to the City of Rome] and to the World”) denotes a papal address and apostolic blessing given to the city of Rome and to the entire world by the Roman pontiff on certain solemn occasions).
La Pasquetta, “Little Easter,” is Easter Monday, the day dedicated to the family and friends. Along the length and breadth of Italy, picnics are held on the beach to celebrate the finalities of Easter week.
Special Easter Italian Food Traditions
Aside from the arrival of the bounty of glittering cello-wrapped chocolate eggs, sugar lambs, chocolate hens, the shops offer Easter specialities. Taralli are firm, doughy cookies covered in a citrusy sugary glaze. Pigno is a rich, eggy cake from Arpino, just south of Roman Lazio. Flours, sugar, lemon, anise, eggs and the sign of the cross slashed into the dough after a double rise make this cake rich and symbolic.
Agnello dolce Pasquale (lamb shaped cakes) symbolising Christ as the sacrificial lamb and of the imminence of spring,eggy Pastiera cakes 🎂, chocolates akin to jewels.
Easter biscuits, tied up with beautiful ribbons make their way to the Easter stage. Frappe, steroid injected fried dough drowned in powdered sugar, and castagnole, small morsels of sugar-coated choux pastry filled with vanilla or chocolate pastry cream are ubiquitous Roman Easter treats. Finally, the omnipresent Kinder Surprise Egg with the DIY toy encased in white and milk chocolate shells are great fun–
I was studying all hours for my PhD, yet Easter in Italy was the release valve I didn’t know I needed. I was a kid again, at 26, this time with confections chicly attired, surrounded on a stage of quicksilver Italian style which effortlessly infiltrates all aspects of daily life.
Experience a Renaissance of ecclesiastical and secular bashes whilst spending Easter in the pastoral splendour of reawakened Italy. Plus, bringing home boxes of creamed-stuffed cakes for 4 weeks, we were nothing if not patriotic.
With thanks to:
Hotels with flexible checkin and out amenities:
Top Churches in Rome
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