Carnival celebrations are a joyful and happy occasion, probably the most colorful and fun time of the year with parades and masquerades that in a normal time would have gather many people on the streets dancing, singing and having fun.
For the Christian religion, Carnival is the last period where to enjoy and linger on fun and amusement, eating the traditional Carnival food before to start the 40-days season of Lent preceding Easter. For Christians, Lent is a period of moderation, sacrifice and fasting from meat, that’s why in Italy, Carnival celebrations represent the last moment to enjoy very rich meat-based meals and tasty desserts (almost always fried!).
Today, with this post we want to present you the most important and well-known Carnival celebrations of Sicily as well as a couple of popular Carnival food that we use to eat during this time. But before to talk about the Sicilian Carnival, we provide a brief introduction about the origins of this cheerful celebration.
Carnival celebrations as a way to hold off the working class
Carnival celebrations has very ancient origins, coming from the Saturnalia, a Roman festivity where every overturning of social order was allowed: during this period slaves could be free men and they even used to elect a prince as a caricature of the noble class. This same spirit is found also in the most famous Carnivalof Italy, the Venice Carnival, known worldwide, where in 1094 for the first time the word Carnival appeared.
Here the Carnival was a necessity of the aristocracy to hold off the working classes, allowing enjoyment and entertainment, a way to vent the bad mood and avoid rebellions. Wild celebrations granted the anonymity thanks to the use of masks covering the faces, and people were even allowed to make fun of social institutions. However, also the Sicilian carnival has many remarkable examples of very long tradition, that have evolved over time until today to be a maximum example of folklor. Let’s find out the most famous ones!
Sicilian Carnival: Acireale Carnival & Sciacca Carnival
The two most important Sicilian Carnival celebrations are the very famous Acireale Carnival, in the district of Catania, and Sciacca Carnival, near Agrigento. In these two cities, before the official start of the Sicilian Carnival, a very long time is spent preparing wonderful and scenic floats made of papier-maché. These huge and often complex mechanical machines animating long and joyful parades has a long tradition dating back to the XVII century.
Acireale Carnival is the first Sicilian Carnival and the third among the Carnival celebrations in Italy in terms of importance after the Venice Carnival and the Viareggio Carnival. Here the Carnival celebrations started with a very popular but dangerous battle that used to take place by throwing each other oranges and lemons; this event turned to be harmful so that it was soon banned in 1612. In 1693 a tremendous earthquake occurred, destroying completely all the towns of the Noto Valley, that were then rebuilt in Sicilian baroque style.
After this terrible event, Sicilian Carnival celebrations, which used to last about a month, were reduced to just a week preceding the beginning of Lent. The employ of the floats is however quite recent and dates back to 1880, when the Carnival celebrations in Sicily start to introduce the first floats parades. At the beginning the parades were made by richly decorated noble chariots. Then the Sicilian Carnival tradition changed to welcome floats made in papier-maché, a material that was already widely used by local artisans in their stores.
Over time the grotesque floats became bigger and bigger, and also the most traditional masks of the Sicilian Carnival celebrations born. Since 1930 the Acireale Carnival introduced the new flower decorated cars (macchine infiorate), which means cars decorated with flower that in the following years became larger flowered floats.
Today the huge machines of Acireale Carnival, as the ones of Sciacca Carnival, can be considered real art works, combining the expertise of local artisans with the biggest social issues: these gigantic floats can also represents social and political themes, trying to raise awareness on contemporary issues and challenges. In the last years floats were implemented to light up on night at a certain moment of the parade or arriving in a specific and prominent place of the itinerary, for examples the cathedral square. Both for these two Sicilian Carnival celebrations a floats competition was organized to establish the most beautiful one.
Also the origins of Sciacca Carnival dates back to 1612 when the viceroy Pedro Téllez-Girón decided that the last day before Lent people must wear a costume. Then, in the XIX century, to the masked parades were added the satirical scripts, written by local poets or writers and performed in dialect by local masked artists during the parades, carried on large decorated platforms (archetype of the modern floats).
From the post-war period, floats of Sciacca Carnival started representing the news of the progress and then evolved into a majestic exhibition of colorful, brilliant and more and more complex moving machines, satirically representing local politicians and popular characters.
The most traditional mask of the Sciacca Carnival is Peppe Nappa, born with the famous Arlecchino and Pulcinella in the XVI century. This mask represents the prototype of a lazy guy, always hungry but yet able to do extraordinary jumps and twirls. In the 50s Peppe Nappa was adopted as the symbol of Sciacca Carnival and its mask is reproduced every year on the first floats, opening the parade (but out of competition) from where hot sausages and wine are dispensed to the crowd, and in the end it is burned in Scandaliato Square.
As a matter of fact, Carnival celebrations started in Sicily as a further opportunity to express what probably Sicilians can do better: eat! During the first Sicilian Carnival celebrations people were used to prepare and share on the streets the typical carnival food which means a lot of wine, sausages, pork and cannoli. So if you want to know more about the popular carnival food of Sicily you should keep on reading!
Carnival food in Sicily
Carnival food is surely very rich and fatty since we will have a following 40 days of sacrifice and moderation: practicing Christians used to fast from meat on Fridays during Lent, and the most scrupulous even for the whole period! This is the reason why during Carnival celebrations meat-based dished are very widespread. Sicilian Carnival food includes for example pork ragù sauce and sausages to season maccheroni, a particular kind of homemade pasta, and meat balls.
But the real specialties are the desserts, of course carefully fried! Among these fried delicacies, the Italian chiacchiere are very widespread throughout Italy, even if with different names used in the different regions. They are named cròstoli in Veneto and Friuli, galani in Venice, bugie (meaning lies) in Liguria and frappe in Rome, just to name a few. Italian Chiacchiere come from the ancient Roman frictilia, treats prepared during the Saturnalia and shared with people on the street. They are very easy to prepare, and if you like you can find out in our Youtube channel the chiacchiere recipe.
In Messina instead, we have a very special and typical Carnival food, a very colorful and tasty dessert called pignolata. The Sicilian pignolata of Messina, looks like a puffy cake frosted half brown aromatized with chocolate and half white with the ever-present lemon. Its name comes from pigna, the pine cone, and in fact, under the glaze, the base of Sicilian pignolata is a composition of small fried batter balls shaped like pine cone petals, then combined in a unique bunch. Its origins dates back to the Arab domination, when it was a simple fried batter covered with honey.
According to a legend, the first recipe for the Sicilian pignolata was invented by the nuns of a monastery of Messina, that in origin used to prepare this dessert as bunches of fried pine nuts with honey to give the people. For lack of pine nuts, nuns started to prepare pignolata replacing the pine nuts with fried batter, which had surprisingly more success than the former variant.
During the Spanish domination, even the noble class appreciated the Sicilian pignolata but asked to the pastry chefs to replace the honey with a more elegant and refined glaze, to be aromatized with lemon and cocoa, a new extraordinary ingredient that they started to import from America, thus finalizing the process that turned the Sicilian pignolata to be the most loved Sicilian dessert of the Carnival celebrations in Messina.
In the end we can affirm that Carnival celebrations in Sicily is a very vibrant and loved tradition, and this year due to the pandemic we are going to miss again another occasion to gather and have fun, and maybe we won’t feel the Carnival spirit as in other years. However, we are sure that, as in the past Carnival celebrations stopped during wars and after terrible earthquakes and then took back even more brilliant and dazzling, so will happen after this very hard times, and we will be ready to bounce back and celebrate in an even greater way!