Sunday, 4 April 2010

Easter in Italy

Today is Easter Sunday morning and I can hear all the bells tolling in the valley to signal the resurrection. Soon every Italian family will be sitting down to a sumptuous meal, either at home or in a restaurant. We are eating with friends, munching leg of lamb roasted in a wood fired oven.
Easter in Italy is primarily a religious festival and a family feast. The shops do have Easter eggs, of course, but they aren’t so prominent as they are in England, and there’s no sign of the population stampeding to airports and train stations to escape to foreign climates.
In the week before Easter, graves are visited and cleaned, fresh flowers put on them. On Maundy Thursday the devout go to mass, and on Friday there is a festival of light, the celebration of Gesu Morto (the dead Jesus). It’s very macabre and thoroughly pagan.
Every building in the town is lit by candles or improvised lamps. Glasses are wired to the wall, half filled with water and then topped up with olive oil. A handmade wick is floated in them. They are made by the women - an art form, one elderly lady told me - and it’s called something that sounds like ‘cincingerello’, though I couldn’t find it in the dictionary. It sounds very like the Italian word for ‘girdle’.
At dusk, all the lamps and candles are lit. On a wooden altar with wheels, is a statue of Jesus Christ, taken down from the cross and lying at the feet of three women - the three Marys; his mother Mary, with 7 swords piercing her heart; Mary Magdalene with her hair to her waist; and Mary the mother of his disciple John. This huge float is paraded through the streets accompanied by the Mayor and town council, the chiefs of police, fire brigade, priests - all in full regalia - the choir and the town band playing a doleful requiem. There are thousands of people crammed into the narrow streets and alleyways and as the procession passes they all turn and follow it through the town.
I’m always very much aware of the pagan origins of the festival. It is the feast of Eostre - the pagan goddess of fertility and renewal, the goddess of light - worshipped at the spring equinox.
She was well known to the Venerable Bede, born in the 6th Century, who was proud of the fact that Christian tradition had taken the place of her festival, though it hadn’t managed to obliterate the name.
"Eosturmonath (April) has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance."
She was known in Germany as Ostara or Austra - the spirit of light, and her effigy was paraded across the fields with beating drums and music, to wake the earth from its winter sleep and celebrate the return of the sun. They probably also scattered the blood of the sacrificial lamb, but best not to think of that just before lunch!!

2 comments:

  1. Italy seems to be more religious I think than the United States. That is just my impression, I could be wrong.

    It is interessting that so many people are aware of the pagan origins of Easter and the customs of Easter, but few seem to be concerned about that. As I point out in my blog, God gave specific instructions NOT to borrow pagan customs or adapt them to the worship of Him. I believe history shows that the original first century Church never kept Easter or Christmas.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The pageant that is Italy.
    Kathleen, you are making me jealous again.

    ReplyDelete