Whether religious or secular, Easter in Italy is worth experiencing. An overwhelmingly Catholic holiday – the most important of the Catholic calendar – the entire country goes all out to celebrate Easter in a festival of spring and light and renaissance.
Here spring arrives early. Many flowers are already in bloom by early March and mild temperatures mean the holiday can be celebrated outside. It’s the perfect time of year to visit and each year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims do.
Easter celebrations begin the Sunday before Easter, known as Palm Sunday. This marks Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem, where enthusiastic townspeople threw clothes and palm fronds in front of Jesus’ path as a sign of homage. Apparently, this was customary and signified great respect. Today, palm branches are widely recognized as a symbol of peace and they are blessed and given out to Catholics on Palm Sunday. Here palm fronds are few, so the Italians use olive branches instead!
After that there is Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and then, of course, Easter Sunday. While most of these are only relevant for practicing Catholics, some, like Good Friday, offer a unique look into Italian culture and Catholic heritage. Good Friday marks the day of Jesus’ death on the cross and it’s remembered with the Stations of the Cross, a look at each “station” that recalls Christ’s journey to the cross. In America this is often observed in church. In Italy, the Pope and dozens of bishops, priests and other servers guide the public in a candlelit procession, stopping along the way at each “station” to recall Christ’s journey to the cross. In Rome it begins at the Colosseum, where it’s begun since the 1800s, and heads up the Palatine Hill, but literally every town throughout Italy offers its own Station of the Cross procession, usually with prayers, songs and actors of the major characters.
These holidays are celebrated by Catholics throughout the world, but there is one more Easter celebration specific to Italy. Known as “Pasquetta” (pronounced pahss|KWET|tah) or “little Easter”, the day after Easter is a national holiday. Officially celebrated to remember the day the women arrived to the sepulchre of Jesus and instead meet an angel, who tells them Jesus has risen. Later, the holiday was adopted by the government after WWII to lengthen the Easter holidays. (Like the post-Christmas Santo Stefano celebration). And thank goodness they did! Who can eat so many courses and then be expected to go right back to work the next day? Psh!
Easter is a hugely important holiday for Catholics, but the actual celebration is much more laid back. There are only two requirements: a damn good meal, and damn good company. Italians say, “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi”, that is, Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you want”. With the addition of Pasquetta, Easter is a holiday meant to be spent outside and in good company. Many take advantage of the long weekend to take a trip. Those that stay inevitably close the Holy Week with a relaxing Pasquetta outside. Just another reason life in Italy truly is la bella vita!
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