Ferragosto: what is it and why is it a holiday in Sicily to celebrate and savor?
In Sicily, as well as in the rest of Italy, there is an unmissable holiday that has always united everyone and is the symbol of summer and summer vacations. It is the Ferragosto!
In the hottest week of summer, Ferragosto arrives as a breath of fresh air for those who finally have the chance to enjoy the vacations and a well-deserved break from work. Punctually, at the beginning of the hot season, someone asks the classic question: what shall we do on Ferragosto? Groups of friends organize for a dip in the sea, a party on the most beautiful beaches of Sicily or in villas, to spend a day of relaxation and fun.
Ferragosto night, is celebrated on August 14 mainly on the beach, with music, dancing, bonfires (often, unauthorized) and midnight bathing. Then, on August 15, people devote a lunch or an entire day to the classic Ferragosto “arrustuta” (grilled meat) or a delicious fish lunch at the homes of friends and relatives.
A tradition that does not go out of fashion and leaves ample room for different ways of celebrating. But what is the origin of Ferragosto and where does this tradition originate?
Let’s find out together!
The profane origins of Ferragosto: a tribute to the goddess Diana
But what are the true origins of Ferragosto? Often, we tend to celebrate an event without asking too many questions. After all, tradition is also that.
But it is also good to remember where it all begins, and you should know that Ferragosto has both a secular and a religious origin. Two origins that intertwine and mingle to give way to a celebration that, from province to province, from family to family, changes the mode and type of celebration.
The origins of Ferragosto are older than people think. One has to go back to the era of Emperor Augustus, exactly in 18 B.C. It was he who instituted the Feriae Augusti, which lasted for an entire month, from August 1th to 31th, and allowed everyone to celebrate the religious holiday and take a break from working in the fields, a well-deserved moment in which one could refresh oneself from the fatigue of months of hard work.
It also represented a way to kick off a series of events and celebrations dedicated to the goddess Diana, the goddess of fertility who was celebrated on August 13. During these days of respite, horses and pack animals were also allowed to rest, in a sense, and were outfitted to parade along village streets or participate in races organized for the festival.
The sacred feast of Ferragosto beginning with Christianity
The pagan nature of the holiday of Ferragosto was replaced with a festival of religious origin precisely with the advent of Christianity, around the fifth century A.D. From this date, many of the pagan festivals and celebrations dedicated to the Goddess Diana that fell at the beginning of August were “converted” into religious festivals by the Church.
The feast of the Assumption of Our Lady takes place in many Sicilian seaside resorts, with the typical procession of Our Lady on the prow of a fishing boat accompanied by marching bands. Boats participate in the festival, in an atmosphere of celebration and devotion that sanctions the moment of blessing the waters. Such as the procession on boats in Marettimo or that dedicated to Our Lady of Portosalvo in Marina di Ragusa or, again, of the regatta in honor of the Assumption in Syracuse.
In fact, the day of Ferragosto coincides with the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven. Horse parades are joined by processions of believers. For example, one of the best known is the parade that takes place in Tusa and Motta d’Affermo, in the province of Messina, which is still celebrated today with the Historic Cavalcade of Horses.
Even the time of rest from work in the fields was replaced with the classic vacation of Ferragosto, just as convivial gatherings in front of Roman temples were replaced by meals with friends, parties at the seaside or in the countryside.
These are festivities that are still present in the weeks preceding or following the day of Ferragosto, which to this day are reinterpreted in different ways, also influenced by contemporary times.
Ferragosto traditions in Sicily
In Sicily, as in the rest of Italy, Ferragosto usually lasts a week. The lucky ones, can enjoy a multi-week summer break or devote an entire month to relaxation and fun.
Traditionally, celebrations are concentrated between August 14th and 15th, and this moment is celebrated differently, sometimes even from province to province, with more or less curious details closely related to the place where it is celebrated.
But what are the most vivid traditions besides the typical midnight swim in the sea or family lunch? One of the traditions of Ferragosto we find in Syracuse, and that is the Regatta of the Assumption of Syracuse, a rowing race within the waters of the Port that takes place right around Ferragosto, along with the traditional swim to the Villetta Aretusa and the sea procession of the Assumption.
If we move to the western part of Sicily, specifically to Bisacquino, we will discover another type of celebration and another Ferragosto tradition, that of the “Madonna del Balzo,” which takes place with a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary and the traditional watermelon “abbuffata“, literally “eat a lot” (the so-called “mulunata“).
The “mulunata” (watermelon eating), takes place during the night and coincides with the arrival on the mountain where the place of worship stands. The watermelon represents a “prize” for those who have walked during the night to reach the shrine and is a tradition that has attracted the attention of the Pro-Loco, so much so that during the night of Ferragosto it dedicates a stand for the distribution of watermelon slices to all pilgrims.
Other traditions of Ferragosto in Sicily
Sicily is full of traditions, both for those who love religious festivals and for those who want to rediscover the area while enjoying dreamy landscapes, events and shows, and festivals dedicated to good food.
Also on August 15th, there is another religious festival linked to the tradition of Blufi. We are talking about the Feast of Our Lady of the Oil of Blufi. On this occasion, there is a large pilgrimage to the Sanctuary and, at the same time, some typical representations of the peasant cult are staged, which give the opportunity to rediscover the culture of the place but also to taste the typical products of the area.
For lovers of music and shows, during this period one can enjoy the scenic spectacle offered by the Madonie Mountains and participate in the “Ballo della Cordella“, an event that takes place in charming Petralia Sottana and in which twelve pairs of dancers (each representing a month of the year) dance around a pole twirling colored ribbons, a symbol of good luck.
Typically secular in nature, this tradition centered on the auspiciousness of the fertility of newly married couples and the earth almost explicitly recalls the Roman origin of Ferragosto.
Finally, returning to the eastern side of Sicily, Messina on Ferragosto day celebrates the procession of the Vara dell’Assunta, a votive structure dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s bed, which is carried by the faithful through the main streets of the city. The extraordinariness of the structure is its weight, 8 tons, for a height of about 14 meters.
Between dreamy beaches and gastronomic delights that smell of Sicily
From eastern Sicily to the western side, some of the most beautiful beaches in Italy stretch out. In August, and not only on the night of Ferragosto, the beaches are populated with tourists and sea lovers at all hours of the day and night.
There are many events in the seaside resorts, from San Vito Lo Capo to Taormina, from Marzamemi to Mondello, from Scala dei Turchi to the Zingaro Nature Reserve, for those who love breathtaking landscapes and secret places all to be discovered.
And what about food? Ferragosto is not only celebration and rest, it is also the discovery of gastronomic flavors and traditions. We have already talked about the red watermelon, the protagonist on the tables of Sicilians during Ferragosto, both on the beach and at the end of the pilgrimage or at large tables with friends and relatives. A fresh and light fruit that inspires must-have desserts such as the delicious watermelon gelo.
But the tradition of arrustuta cannot be missed! Around a bonfire, since ancient times, it has been a tradition to grill the food left over from cleaning the fields. A large fire was lit right at midnight and celebrated around the bonfire to wish everyone prosperity and good life. From this tradition came the pleasure of gathering around a fire and also that of organizing barbecues of meat for whole days until late in the evening.
For lunch on the table, Ferragosto alternates between land and seafood dishes. From Messina-style chops to “tonno alla siciliana”, from pasta with sardines to timbale of baked anelletti and pasta with almond pesto, but also arancine (fried rice balls), sarde a beccafico (sardines with sardines) and delicious side dishes such as eggplant caponata.
In short, Ferragosto is celebration, it is tradition, it is worship, but it is also good food, conviviality and rediscovery of flavors.