by Maria Lamkin

April 2000


Easter is a time for rejoicing because the rebirth of physical life on earth symbolizes the eternity of spiritual life. The meaning of this celebration, however, is more complex than this: only after his torment will Christ resurrect and defeat death, which demonstrates that physical death is the means whereby one can obtain eternal life.

Easter derives from a pagan festival devoted to the Anglo-Saxon goddess of springtime and sunrise. This divinity was called Eostre, a denomination that derived from the word east (where the sun rises). Every spring northern European populations held this festival to honor the awakening of life in nature, but the date on which it was celebrated differed from place to place. With the beginning of the Christian era the rising of the sun and the rebirth of nature were associated with the resurrection of Jesus. For the early Christians Easter fell on the same date as Passover, a traditional Jewish feast. Then in 325 A.D. a council of churchmen decreed that this festivity should be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21. Being as it is celebrated on a Sunday that may fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25, Easter is a “movable” feast. Each year it may consequently be labeled as “high” or “low”, depending on the date on which it is due to land.

Other than in deep religiousness, Easter finds its origin in pre-Christian rites. With them fertility, spring and the warmth of new life were celebrated as long awaited-for replacements of the bareness and desolation of winter. The myths of the return to daylight after the journey to the underground world explain why religious symbolism represents the fulcrum of this celebration. The intense joy that for a pristine time has characterized it is expressed by the witty motto “felice come una Pasqua” (literally, "as joyful, lighthearted or merry as Easter”). We have also underlined that, in spite of being a “movable” feast, Easter falls in any case in spring. This is the period in which the weather is milder, the sun starts shining for longer hours, and nature reawakens. The Easter season is therefore marked by excursions and trips that may take the traveler to faraway locations (how about that fabulous cruise on the Nile or that vacation to the warm Caribbean Islands?) It is to this custom that we owe the famous motto “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” (“Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you wish.”)

Not dissimilarly from Christmas, Easter as well is characterized by a vast range of customs, of which as already mentioned some are of religious or spiritual origin, while others are of a more materialistic nature. The “rebirth” begins almost unnoticeably with the so-called spring or Easter “major clean-ups” which express the desire to purify not only the soul but whatever surrounds us. Modern customs associated with Easter are mostly a derivation from pre-Christian lore. On Easter day, for example, it is an almost universal custom to put on new clothes, or at least a new accessory or item of clothing. This tradition reflects not only pagan beliefs but also the early-Christian custom of having the newly baptized wear white Easter robes. People take leisurely walks to enjoy the return of milder weather and (why not?) to display their new clothes.

There is no doubt that the eggs are the centerpiece of this festivity. Because they have ever since symbolized fertility, in ancient times they were exchanged as gifts during spring festivals. With the arrival of Christianity, eggs were given a further meaning and became the symbol of the burial place from which Christ rose. The Easter bunny as well predates the Christian era. The rabbit has always been extremely fertile and our ancestors saw it as a symbol of new life. Today, Italian children enjoy eating candy or chocolate bunnies, often decorated with little bells.

Popular religiousness reaches its apex during Holy Week, when various rites are held in remembrance of the last days of Christ and of his Crucifixion. In all their diverse manifestations these forms of popular folklore are enriched by a deep faith and a spirit of penitence, hence by the participants’ desire for a spiritual catharsis. To start with, everybody has some water blessed. Then on Easter Sunday the head of the household, having bathed an olive sprig in it, will use the branch to sprinkle the water over the heads of his family and guests. A tradition which by now has almost completely disappeared consists in priests’ blessing their parishioners’ homes. Some of this symbolism still survives; the farmers of Abruzzo, for instance, bathe their foods in blessed water. Similar rites are performed in Versilia (where the wives of sailors kiss the ground) and in the area of Forlė (where farmers set fire to huge bonfires that symbolize the purifying strength of this natural element). We needn’t of course underline that Easter is the natural conclusion of a spiritual pilgrimage that starts on Ash Wednesday (the day that follows Carnival). The name of this celebration is associated with the fact that on this day priests use penitential ashes to make the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads. Ash Wednesday marks the onset of Lent, a period which serves as a remembrance of the forty days that Christ spent in the desert, fasting and praying. Palm Sunday (the beginning of Holy Week) commemo­rates the day on which Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was greeted with palm branches that were spread on the path before Him. On this Sunday the tradition has been for believers to have their olive sprigs (a typical sight of the Mediterranean natural environment) blessed. A recent innovation has been the introduction of branches made by interweaving the leaves of palm trees (a tradition which corresponds more closely to the scene portrayed by the Gospels). Holy Thursday, the day preceding the Crucifixion, was a traditional Jewish Passover feast. Christians celebrate it in remembrance of the Last Sup­per that Jesus had with his disciples. On that occasion he left them as his main message the commandment to love each other. Every year in respect of this precept a ceremony is held in St. Peter’s (Rome) during which the Pope re-enacts Christ’s Last Supper; as a sign of humility and affection, he washes and kisses the feet of twelve priests who act as his “disciples”. Holy Friday recalls the day of the Crucifixion and is devoted to spiritual meditation and penitence. The main custom consists in the visit, which may begin in the evening of Holy Thursday, to the “Sepulchers”, that is to the altars in which, symbolically, lies the dead Christ. These altars are decorated with a wealth of flowers and especially with bowls of wheat that has already sprung, which signifies Christ’s and mankind’s imminent return to life. Processions and performances abound throughout the country. In the former, which unfold from dusk until late at night, hundreds of believers follow the statue of a dead Jesus that is carried around their city’s main streets. There are numerous centers, particularly in Southern Italy, where these processions are endless; their participants move at a very slow pace (usually proceeding with two steps ahead and one behind), almost as if re-enacting Christ’s tragedy. The latter, which artistically speaking are always of a remarkable level, commemorate the trial of Christ, his agony and death. An example noted throughout Italy is that of Sezze, a city close to Latina, where hundreds of actors and thousands of spectators participate in the intense drama that is acted every year regardless of the weather. In other cases, performances center more typically on popular elements; some of the most interesting examples are those of Calabria (in which enormous puppets represent the apostles and the Madonna), or those of the province of Messina in Sicily (where the protagonists of the parades are disguised “Jews”). The most famous re-enacting is the one which takes place in Rome around the area of the Imperial Forum: here the Pope identifies with Christ and goes through a “Via Dolorosa” that is broadcast throughout the world. A somber atmosphere invades big and small cities alike and permeates churches, in which the crucifix is covered with a purple cloth. On the contrary, Holy Saturday passes almost unnoticed - the only exception being the widely known celebration that takes place in Florence. Here fire and a dove are the protagonists of a particularly choreographic show. With a “burst of the wagon” the dove (on this occasion denominated " colombina ") is launched from the main altar on a small rocket, flies along a thread, and arrives onto the top of the door of the Cathedral, where it ignites the fire crackers positioned on an allegorical wagon. All of this obviously symbolizes the soul that yearns for purification. Starting from the evening of Holy Thursday bells remain mute and will be tolled again with festive sounds only upon the arrival of Easter Sunday (or, as a recent innovation has made possible, around 11:30 P.M. on Holy Saturday).

Traditionally, the food associated with Easter is lamb (which in some areas has been replaced by kid). Even in this case age-old customs have been handed over to modern man. As the Old Testament narrates, Abra­ham sacrificed a ram after God ordered him to kill his son Isaac. This meat is consumed partly in memory of the Easter lunch of the Hebrews, partly to symbolize the figure of Christ who, although innocent, sacrifices himself for the salvation of all Christians. In general, the presence – or, rather, the abundance - of rich food confirms that all the deprivations and sacrifices of Lent are over. The limitations and penitence of the forty days that precede Easter are therefore replaced by the return to joy (which replenishes nor only the soul but also … the stomach). Eggs are the absolute protagonists of this day’s cuisine; they may be used to decorate rustic breads or cakes or to prepare some types of “pizzas”. As we all know, chocolate eggs are appreciated particularly by the youngest (and the greediest!), probably also for the surprises they contain. There is then the Easter dove (the “colomba”) which is consumed throughout the country. This type of dessert, which some view as very similar to that of “Panettone” served at Christmas, consists of a soft and raised dough; according to your personal taste, you may buy either the type with candied fruit or the one that does not contain it. In the traditional type the external layer consists of sugar and almonds. With the passing of time new recipes have been added thanks to which a “colomba” may now be sold in the varieties covered or filled with chocolate, fruit (tropical or berries), or “limoncello” (lemon-based liquor) cream. In vice of a “colomba” you may buy other desserts made with the same dough and covered or filled with the same ingredients but shaped as a bell (la “campana”) or a lamb (“l’agnello”). In Central and Southern Italy the customary dessert is “pastiera”, a delicious and filling cake the main ingredients of which are ricotta cheese, candied fruit, and above all wheat soaked in milk. What makes it unique is also its aroma, given out by the so-called “essence of orange blooms” that is extracted from the flowers of this citrus fruit.

The Monday that follows Easter is known as “Pasquetta” and is a national holiday, one on which offices, schools, etc. are all closed. Being as it is a day of complete relax, it may be spent on excursions, short trips, and picnics in the countryside. There are also places where it is devoted to pilgrimages. An example is the ritual performed by the believers who pay their visit to the sanctuary of Madonna dell’Arco (next to the Vesuvius). These people form various groups of “vattienti” who walk barefooted and carry flags on which they pin their offers. Once they near the entrance to the sanctuary they cross its threshold and finally enter to deliver their devote prayers.

Enjoy your Easter and the beauty of spring!


Maria Lamkin can be reached at lamkin@uni.net