By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
Ferragosto, or Assumption Day, is an Italian and Sanmarinese national holiday celebrated on Aug. 15. The term Ferragosto is derived from the Latin expression Feriae Augusti meaning Augustus’ rest, which was a celebration introduced by the emperor Augustus in 18 B.C. This celebration of Feriae Augusti became part of an already existent Roman festival which fell in the same month, Vinalia rustica or the Consualia. This event marked the harvest and the end of a long period of intense agricultural labor. The ancient Ferragosto, in addition to obvious self-celebratory political purposes, had the purpose of linking the main August festivities to provide a longer period of rest, called Augustali, which was felt necessary after the hard labor of the previous weeks.
During these celebrations, horse races were organized across the empire and laboring beasts including oxen, donkeys and mules were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. Such ancient traditions are still alive today. They remain virtually unchanged in their form and level of participation, as is exemplified during the Palio dell’Assunta, better known as the Palio di Siena which takes place on Aug. 16 in Siena. The word palio comes from the Latin pallium, a piece of precious fabric which was the usual prize given to winners of the horse races in ancient Rome.
During Feriae Augusti workers greeted their masters who in return would give them a tip. The custom became so strongly rooted that in the Renaissance it became compulsory in the Papal States.
Present-day traditions such as taking a trip during Ferragosto arose during Fascism. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organized hundreds of popular trips through the fascist leisure and recreational organizations of various corporations. All this was made easier for the public by setting up the “People’s Trains of Ferragosto,” which were available at discounted prices.
The initiative gave the opportunity to less well-off social classes to visit Italian cities or to reach seaside and mountain resorts. The of offer was limited to the dates of Aug. 13-15 and offered two options: a one-day trip within a radius of 31-62 miles, and a three-day journey within a radius of about 62-124 miles.
Today with Ferragosto as its apex, August has evolved in a national monthlong holiday period, making it an integral part of the memory of each generation. Songs and films have been made recounting the feelings and experiences, summer loves and Ferragosto parties. For all Italians, from the 1960s to today, Ferragosto remains a collective memory like studying Dante at school and Italy winning a World Cup. (Note: This year Italians across the world are joyfully celebrat-ing Italy’s win of the World Cup. They last won in 2006.)
Many businesses and shops in Italy are closed on Aug.15, although on the coast and near major tourist sites shops are more likely to be open. Most museums and tourist sites are open on Aug. 15. In local neighbor-hoods residents need to plan as some local businesses may shut down for up to two weeks. Many major cities are less bustling as Italians head to the beach for Ferragosto, so the coast and coastal roads are usually very crowded as are the roads to the mountains. Trains and planes are also crammed full as Italians escape the hot cities for relaxation and fun.
While the Palio di Siena is a major event in August, other notable festivities are Rome’s Gran Ballo di Ferragosto that fills Rome’s squares with live dance performances. There’s a different type of dance in each square.
Diano Marina in Liguria holds a festival of the sea with a wonderful fireworks display. In Tuscany, Montepulciano holds a historical pageant and games. Cappelle sul Tavo, near Pescara on the Abruzzo coast, celebrates with the Palio of the Pupe, huge effigies paraded through the streets at night. During the procession, they eventually explode with fireworks. Sassari in Sardinia holds the Festa dei Candelieri that dates to the 16th century. During this celebration teams of men race bearing huge and very heavy candles.
In Sicily, the seaside city of Messina holds the “Vara di Messina,” one of the most notable celebrations on the island. A monumental votive structure approximately 49 feet high weighing 8 tons is pulled through the streets of Messina by about 1,200 people dressed in white and in bare feet. On top is the Madonna and baby Jesus as well as three angels. The streets are hosed down to facilitate moving the Vara. The evening finishes with an explosion of fireworks set off against the backdrop of the Madonnina of the port of Messina.
Celebrations abound across the country in even the smaller towns and the excitement is intense as Italians prepare for these very special events and the vacations they wait for all year long.
Note: While many Italians will still be heading out on vacation, many events may not be fully celebrated and there could be some restrictions on travel as Italy’s government tries to avoid a surge in COVID cases.