Although Easter in Italy falls on the same day as in any other part of the world – namely, the first Sunday after the first full moon, which falls on or after March 21 – Easter celebrations in Italy are quite different from those in Anglo-Saxon culture, for example. You will very rarely find in Italy the tradition of Easter bunnies and Easter egg hunts.
Nevertheless, the day of Easter is considered very important and has strong ties to Christian tradition and faith. The Easter holidays are, next to the celebrations of Christmas in Italythe most important religious and family holidays.
The true meaning of Easter in Italy
The true meaning of Easter – “Pasqua” in Italian – has nothing to do with bunnies. According to Christian tradition, Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. Jesus was executed by Pilate as a political and religious rebel. He was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, who set in motion a series of events that led to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus was condemned to death and, according to the Gospels, crucified outside the gate of Jerusalem on Mount Golgatà. The day of his death is Good Friday, “Venerdì Santo”, in today’s celebrations. Three days after his death, on the day corresponding to Easter Day – which always falls on Sunday – Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, according to Italian tradition, the week leading up to Easter includes solemn processions and masses, while Easter Day, “giorno di Paqua,” is a joyous day marked by cheerful traditions and customs.
The joyful spirit continues until the day after Easter, Easter Monday, which Italians call “Pasquetta”, also a feast and holiday in Italy.
Easter in Italy: Via Crucis in Rome in 2019 ( © AM113 / Shutterstock.com)
Easter in Italy: Easter week
In the past, Easter celebrations in Italy began much earlier: 40 days before Easter Day began the period of Quaresima, the weeks of fasting. It was to be a sad time because it led to the death of Jesus.
Therefore, during Quaresima, Christians did not sing hallelujahs or glorias in church, weddings were not celebrated, and in some areas fasting was also observed very strictly. Joyous secular celebrations or events such as theatrical performances were also forbidden.
Fun fact: Purple is considered a “bad luck” color in the Italian entertainment world, especially by people who work in theaters. Actors never wear purple on stage, and nothing purple may be used as a prop or brought near the stage. Where does this “superstition” come from?
Purple is the color of Quaresima (Lent), as priests wear purple tunics during this time. Since performances were forbidden, the theater people could not work during these 40 days and were basically unemployed. Since then, Lila has been associated with those difficult days.
Today, the rituals of the Quaresima are no longer so strictly observed by all Italians. What has remained is the color of the priests’ tunic and the theater people’s aversion to it.
Easter in Italy: Via Crucis in Barile in Basilicata ( photos © Francesca Sciarra / Shutterstock.com)
The rituals of Easter in Italy mainly begin during Easter week (the seven days before Easter Sunday) and are followed by many devout and religious people. However, the processions and rituals can be very interesting even for lay people. They can be an extraordinary opportunity to witness some Italian folklore, traditions and customs.
Easter in Italy: Via Crucis – The Way of the Cross of Christ
One of the most famous rituals is the one called“Via Crucis“, which usually takes place on Good Friday in parishes in Italy. This is a procession that recounts Jesus’ journey to Golgotà, the mountain where he met his death. According to Christian tradition, Jesus took his cross to the mountain and fell three times in pain and exhaustion.
During the Via Crucis, people walk behind the cross, stopping 13 times along the way. At these stops, the journey of Jesus is recalled and prayers and songs are recited.
Some cloisters “Via Crucis” can be very spectacular and engaging. You can take the opportunity to walk in the company of the locals through Italian borghi (small villages), meadows and forests. Some celebrations re-enact the Passion of Christ with candles, music and also actors carrying the cross.
The most famous Via Crucis is the one at the Colosseum of Rome with the Pope. Exceptional is also the Via Crucis with real people (Via Crucis con personaggi viventi) of Barile in the southern Italian region of Basilicata or the procession of Pietraperzia in the province of Enna in Sicily with the large cross – Lu signuri di li fasci.
Easter in Italy: procession with large cross “Lu Signuri di li fasci“ in Pietraperzia ( © francesca commissari / Shutterstock.com)
If you are in Italy for Easter and don’t want to miss an impressive Good Friday celebration, you have plenty of opportunities to do so throughout the Italian peninsula.
Misteri di Trapani
In Trapani, Sicily, the Good Friday procession lasts a full 24 hours! The “Misteri” are realistic sculptures made of wood, canvas and glue that depict the Passion and death of Jesus. The highlight of the celebration is a representation of the events of the Passion.
The celebrations during the Easter week in Sicily are very special in very many towns and villages of the Mediterranean island.
The procession in Chieti
The procession, which takes place in Chieti in Abruzzo, is considered one of the oldest traditions in Italy. It can be very moving, whether you are a Christian or not. At the climax of the event, 100 violins play Secchi’s Miserere.
Easter in Italy: Ballo dei Diavoli, the devils dance. Easter celebrations in Prizzi, Sicily, Italy (photo © Terje Lillehaug / Shutterstock.com)
Easter in Italy: Easter Sunday
After the rigors of Easter week, Easter Sunday is a joyous feast day. Just like Christmas, it is very important for Italians to spend this day with their families.
The festivities are closely associated with food and conviviality. Families gather around the table for a big Easter meal. In some areas, it is traditional for the table to be set for the entire day, and anyone who comes to visit can sit down and dine with the hosts.
Culinary Easter in Italy
Since Easter Sunday celebrations are strongly linked to food, let’s take a look at what kind of food Italians prepare on Easter Sunday. Some meals or types of food are prepared only during Easter.
- “Torta di Pasqua”, literally Easter cake. It is typical of the Umbria region and is made with flour and lots of cheese. The Easter cake is eaten with other typical products of Umbrian cuisine: salami, prosciutto, “capocollo” and the bravest can also eat it with a piece of chocolate.
- “Colomba. It’s the Easter equivalent of panettone at Christmastime. It is a cake, similar to a panettone, but with candied peel, almonds and pearl sugar. It has the shape of a dove as a symbol of peace.
- Lamb. It is a traditional Easter staple dish in the Lazio region. The lamb is cooked in different ways: “abbacchio allo scottadito”, crispy lamb ribs with fresh artichokes; roasted leg of lamb with potatoes; “abbacchio alla romana” – as the name suggests, this is a traditional dish from Rome – it consists of a lamb cooked in wine, anchovies, rosemary and garlic.
- Salami with boiled eggs. In the houses where the table remains set all day and loaded with “tons” of food, salami and boiled eggs are served for breakfast and during the day.
- Easter eggs. Easter eggs deserve a special mention. This is a fairly recent tradition, known throughout Italy. The Italian Easter eggs are large chocolate eggs that are empty inside so they can contain a surprise. These chocolate Easter eggs are mainly for children, with the eggs containing small toys for them to spend their Easter Sunday playing with.
Easter in Italy: Colomba – Easter cake, similar to panettone. (photo © shutterstock.com)
Easter in Italy: special celebrations for Easter Sunday
In some Italian cities, traditions make Easter Sunday even more special. The events can be very strange and you have the opportunity to marvel at something very special.
Scoppio del Carro in Florence: literallyit means the explosion of the car. On Easter Sunday in Florence, a cart – called “brindellone” – is taken through the city to Piazza del Duomo, the heart of the city.
The brindellone is pulled by two oxen, followed by a huge parade of people. Once the Brindellone reaches the square, a fuse is lit inside the cathedral. The fuse reaches the Brindellone through a wire and leads to its “explosion”, a phenomenal fireworks display that lasts over 20 minutes.
La Madonna che Scappa in Sulmona: literally , the Virgin Mary who runs away. On Easter Sunday, a group of men dressed in white and green – the colors of hope and peace – carry a black-clad statue of Mary out of the church. As they slowly leave the church, the statue suddenly turns green and a storm of doves is released. At this point, the men with the statue of Mary sprint across the square. The whole thing lasts only 16 seconds, but the “run” to the men is marveled at by the cheering crowd.
Easter in Italy: Easter Monday – Pasquetta
Pasquetta at Easter in Italy is what Italians call the Monday that follows Easter Sunday. It is also a holiday, schools and offices are still closed, and the atmosphere has none of the austerity of the days leading up to Easter Day. Usually Pasqua and Pasquetta fall in full spring.
While Pasqua is spent at home, Pasquetta is usually spent outdoors at picnics with friends and family. In some towns there are free concerts or performances, and there is no lack of peculiar traditions: In Panicale, Umbria, for example, every year there is an event called “Ruzzolone”. In the process, huge wheels of cheese are rolled around the city walls.
As you may have guessed while reading the article, ancient traditions are the protagonists of Easter celebrations in Italy. They are lived with great participation of locals and can offer unique experiences to visitors and guests.