Every self-respecting village and city in Italy has its own Patron Saint Celebration. With at least one daily celebration taking place somewhere in Italy, it couldn`t possibly take long before I walked into one. Here I am, in Catania, Sicily. The 5th of February is dedicated to the local patron saint, known as Santa Agatha.
Santa Agatha is one of the earliest Saints recognised by the Catholic Church. She was born in the third century A.D. and lived a modest and dedicated life on the island of Sicily. Roman Emperor Quintianus, ruler of Sicily at the time, fell in love with Santa Agatha but she rejected his approaches. As a punishment for her refusal, Quintianus sent her to the brothel of Aphrodisia. During the time she spent there, she not only resisted all pressure but even converted the owner of the brothel to Christianity.
`Patron saint celebrations can be quite dangerous`
Santa Agatha was eventually trialed, and her subsequently tortured, her breasts were cut off and the rest of her body was mutilated. Before being tortured to the end of her powers, Santa Agatha`s prayers are believed to be saved Catania from an eminent eruption of the adjacent Etna Volcano. Ever since, Santa Agatha is believed to have protected the city against potential dangers. Because of her history, Catania`s patron saint is also prayed to by victims of breast cancer or skin burns.
Like most religious celebrations in Italy, the main part of the event is a procession through town. The first group participating in Catania`s celebration is made up of people and artifacts (Candeloras) representing different regional crafts. The bakers, butchers and pasta makers are followed by masses of people dressed in white shirts.
The official line-up of the procession is completed by people carrying the coffin of Santa Agatha and a statue of the Saint through town. Before starting on its journey, which will last until the next morning, the statue is closely inspected by the audience. Roberta (20) explains me that the expression on Santa Agatha`s face is believed to predict next year`s fortune. The interpretation of her mood is left to each individual alone, except for some editions of the event that are commonly accepted to be sad. Last year`s celebrations followed the death of a police officer during the aftermath of a local football game, leading everybody to accept that the expression on Santa Agatha`s face was one of mourning.
Livio (29, photo) tells me that the Santa Agatha celebration draws thousands of people from all over Sicily to the city of Catania: `Many of them join the march. Throughout the night, they keep chanting: `We are all devoted to Santa Agatha`, which is then replied to with a firm `Certo, Certo` (amen, amen) by fellow marchers. Most marchers carry candles about 1m75 in length. The diameter of the candle may range from 5 to 40 centimetres. The heaviest ones weigh up to 70 kilograms and are carried over the shoulder with the flame pointing backwards. The bigger the candle, the greater the sacrifice and the more favours may be expected by the person carrying the candle.`
Despite the popularity of the event, some people avoid the Santa Agatha celebration. It`s actually even dangerous to be out in the streets during the procession. Apart from the constant and uncontrolled presence of fire, many litres of wax pouring onto the streets. In recent years, one boy who participated in the procession was walked over by others after having lost his balance.
Unlike many other religious events, drinking is not an integrated part of the Santa Agatha celebration. The only treats are small cakes filled with ricotta and a cherry on top. They are supposed to resemble Santa Agatha`s cut-off breasts.
For those who prefer to celebrate a Saint`s day with lots of food and drinks, there`s other festivities around Sicily. San Giuseppe, All Father`s Day, is celebrated on 19 March. It has cookies as a minimum ingredient. In many villages, entire meals are cooked and neighbours visit each other to enjoy the food they all prepared. The birth of this event dates back to the Middle Ages, when Sicily was plagued by famine and drought. People started praying to San Giuseppe and promised they would remember his help by an annual celebration to which the preparation of delicious meals would be a center point.
Roughly, every village and city on Sicily has at least one Saint that will allow its inhabitants to pray for forgiveness of all their sins. So, for those who prefer to celebrate a Saint`s day by making sacrifices, there are other celebrations that would easily qualify for torturing. Many villages organise annual pilgrimages towards a nearby hill top. Participants may just walk up the hill, while others put chains on their ankles, and depending on the exact location and celebration, cover up to 20 kilometres on their knees. Interested? San Filipo is features such a procession on the 1st of May in Aidone, and the Festa della Madonna in Mirabella on the last Sunday of August.
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