With the Coronavirus still playing a little havoc in Italy, it is difficult to know just what to expect this Easter. But for sure, Italians will find a way to celebrate it because this is a sacred holiday shared with one’s family and the whole of Italy.
Easter or “Pasqua” in Italy is a joyous celebration and so it is understandable that one day alone is not enough to commemorate it. Without a doubt, the days before and after Easter are all in tune for a celebration. The day after Easter is lovingly called “La Pasquetta”!
If you ever happen to be in Italy for Easter, you won’t see the famous bunny or enjoy an Easter egg hunt. However, Easter in Italy is a huge holiday, second only to Christmas in its importance for Italians. While the days leading up to Easter include solemn processions and masses, Pasqua is a joyous celebration marked with rituals, traditions and lots of family. La Pasquetta, the Monday after Easter Sunday, is also a public holiday throughout the country and it is a day mainly for friends to gather together.
To start the very holy weekend, the pope celebrates the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross, in Rome near the Colosseum on Good Friday. A huge cross with burning torches light the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages. In the end, the pope gives a blessing for the ceremony. Easter mass is held in every church in Italy, with the biggest and most popular celebrated by the pope at Saint Peter’s Basilica. If you every plan to attend in the basilica, you are advised to secure tickets a year in advance.
A Typical Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica
Participants are often dressed in traditional ancient costumes. Also, olive branches are frequently used along with palm fronds in the processions and to decorate churches. However, palm fronds are usually scarce in Italy. Solemn religious processions are held in Italian cities and towns on the Friday or Saturday before Easter, and sometimes on Easter Sunday too. Many churches have special statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that will be paraded through the city or displayed in the main square (piazza).
In Sicily, they have elaborate and dramatic processions. In the city of Enna, it holds a large event on Good Friday, with about 2,000 friars dressed in ancient costumes walking through the streets of the city. Trapani is another interesting place to see processions that are held for several days during the Holy Week. The Good Friday procession there is called Misteri di Trapani which lasts for 24 hours.
What’s believed to be the oldest Good Friday procession in Italy is in Chieti in the Abruzzo region. It’s very moving and somber with Secchi’s “Miserere” beautifully played by 100 violins.
Some towns, such as Montefalco and Gualdo Tadino in Umbria hold live passion plays during the night of Good Friday. Others put on plays acting out the Stations of the Cross. Beautiful torchlight processions are held in Umbria in hill towns such as Orvieto and Assisi.
In Florence, Easter is celebrated with the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart). A huge, decorated wagon used since the 18th century is dragged through Florence by white oxen until it reaches the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in the historic center. After mass, the archbishop sends a dove-shaped rocket into the fireworks-filled cart, creating a spectacular display. A parade of performers in medieval costumes follows after.
Sulmona, in the Abruzzo region, celebrates Easter Sunday with “Madonna che Scappa en la Piazza”which means “Madonna running in the Square!”.
In Sardinia, which is also a part of Italy, some of the Easter traditions there have a strong link to the Spanish “Semana Santa” because of its long association with Spain. The processions and rituals take place all over the island on “Sa Chida Santa” or Holy Week.
Some popular Italian Easter food: Pastierra and Colomba
Since Easter is the end of the Lenten season, it requires sacrifice and reserve. This is where food plays a big part in the celebrations. Traditional holiday foods across Italy may include lamb or goat, artichokes and special Easter breads that vary from region to region. Panettone, a sweet bread, and Colomba (dove-shaped) bread are often given as gifts. Hollow chocolate eggs are also given and each egg usually comes with a surprise inside. (By the way, if you live in the greater Atlanta area, all of these and much, much more are available at E. 48th Street Market in Dunwoody.)
Easter Monday in Italy: La Pasquetta
On Easter Monday, some cities hold dances, free concerts, or unusual games, often involving eggs. In the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, cheese is the star of the occasion. Ruzzolone is played by rolling huge wheels of cheese, weighing about 4 kilos, around the village walls. The goal 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 wine, of course.
As for the food, a whole roasted leg of lamb is paired with fava-bean crostini, sautéed artichokes, and other signs of spring are commonly prepared in the country. In Tuscany, a whole roast leg of lamb is the traditional centerpiece of an Easter feast accompanied by many fresh and fried vegetables. Of course, there will be several desserts all enjoyed with a bit of Vin Santo. Speaking of this wine, we are fortunate enough to have a bottle of homemade Vin Santo given to us by my cousin Andrea Sandroni during one of our visits to Montefolloico and I treasure it.
Pastierra di Grano
Pastierra di grano is a dessert that is believed to date back to the pagan times when ancient Neapolitans would offer all the fruits of their land to the mermaid named Partenope during spring. Eggs for fertility, wheat from the land, ricotta from the shepherds, the aroma of orange flowers, vanilla to symbolize faraway countries and sugar in honor of the sweet mermaid are known to be mostly offered to the mermaid. It is said that the mermaid would take all these ingredients, immerse herself in the sea of the Bay of Naples and give back to the Neapolitans a dessert, which symbolized fertility and rebirth in Greek mythology. The recipe as we know it today was realized by Neapolitan convents and the nuns would make it for rich nobles in the area.
I’m sure there are many versions of this dessert since there are a lot of regions in Italy. We still make a version at home and I am fairly certain that it is still made in many homes today and pastierra di grano can even be bought in pastry shops. In most homes, Easter won’t be Easter without a pastierra dessert, which is actually delicious to eat at any time. Wheat sounds a strange ingredient in making this dessert, but it really is delicious, especially with the delicate flavor of orange-flower water. Precooked wheat is obtainable from Italian food stores and orange-flower water can nowadays be found in supermarkets. (These items are also available at E. 48th Street Market.)
In preparation for Easter, I am sharing with you two full recipes pastierra – pastierra di grana and pastierra di arancia.