Holy Week in Sicily is rich in traditions and celebrations established for many centuries. It is a strongly felt religious event, characterized by devotion and wide participation by the people. The ceremonies, parades and processions that take place in this mystic time are part of the Sicilian culture and folklore since they are set on the island for ages.
Easter is preceded by a period of 40 days called Quaresima (Lent) that starts on Ash Wednesday and finishes on Easter Sunday. It is characterized by penitence and prayer. In this period, faithful and devotees observe vows or small renunciations (called fioretti) to honour the death of Christ.
A Week before Easter it is celebrated Palm Sunday, to recall Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem welcomed by a crowd greeting Him with palm branches. In the imagery of saints, palm is the emblem of martyrdom, so it predicts the death of Jesus. During masses, palms and olive branches are distributed to the attendants and then blessed. In Caltanissetta, Enna and Caccamo, the people celebrate a parade performing Christ entering in Jerusalem (on horseback or on board an ark) and the crowd. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week celebrations.
Holy Week in Sicily: Holy Week traditions, ceremonies and processions
Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday) is dedicated to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper: during the service, the ritual of the Washing of the feet takes place. On this occasion, the Sacrament is shown for adoration on the main altar which is decorated with flowers and “Sepolcri“: this is the Altar of repose. “Sepolcri” are arrangements made of bean sprouts which are prepared since Ash Wednesday. Among Holy week traditions, in the evening of Holy Thursday it is practiced the Seven Church Visitation that consists in visiting seven different churches to pray in front of the Holy Sacrament.
Easter celebrations in Sicily are focused especially on Good Friday. They take inspiration from the Spanish tradition, since Spaniards, during their domination on the island, introduced rituals about the celebration of Christian festivals. In Sicily, we can find many examples of processions deriving from “Los Pasos”, typical events of Holy Week celebrations in Spain (Seville, Malaga). They consist of wooden, silver or paper mâché sculptures or groups of statues recalling episodes of the Passion of Christ, which are taken into procession by religious brotherhoods and believers, during Holy Week in Sicily.
It is set in Messina the centenary procession of Barette (from the Italian word “bara” meaning coffin), dating back 1610: it was made up of 2 elements, The Crucifix and Virgin Mary of Sorrows; little by little it was enriched with more statues and today it counts 11 simulacra, based on episodes described in the Gospels. From the first one, they are: The Last Supper, The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, The Flagellation of Christ, Ecce Homo, The Veil of Veronica, Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus to carry the Cross, Jesus falling beneath the Cross, the Crucifix, Virgin Mary of Sorrows, The Deposition of Christ, The Tomb. These masterpieces are held inside the Church Oratorio della Pace.
In Trapani and Erice similar processions are organized on the occasion of the Holy Week in Sicily: they are called processions of Misteri. Also in Lipari, in the Eolian islands, Misteri are taken into procession in the city center till the scenic Norman Castle.
In Enna, Holy week celebrations include 2 simulacra and a parade consisting of about 3000 people dressed as hooded penitents. It dates back to XVI century.
Another event, very widespread as one of the many Easter celebrations in Sicily, is the Living Via Crucis. In the province of Messina, in Savoca, on Good Friday, Via Crucis (The way of the Cross) is performed by the citizens: they are more than 100 figures dressed as characters from the Passion of Christ, such as Roman centurions, merchants. It is a very impressive event because it is organized in the medieval city center.
In Aidone, Province of Enna, on Palm Sunday it’s possible to admire along the streets the race of “Santoni“, which are very big statues representing the 12 apostles, about 3 meters high: they are attractive because of the vivid coloured dresses and mantles.
Celebration of Holy Week in Sicily end on Easter Sunday, when another procession is organized in Messina with the two statues of Virgin Mary and Risen Christ. In other cities or villages of the island, this procession is known by different names: ‘A giunta, ‘A cerca, ‘Ncontru… consisting in Virgin Mary that looks for Her son just risen.
Food and recipes of Easter celebrations in Sicily
During Lent period, people don’t eat meat and meat products, at least on Fridays, as a penitence to commemorate the death of Christ.
On Holy Thursday, there is the tradition to eat “pane di cena” (Supper bread) that is a kind of soft and sweet bread, covered with sesame: it’s delicious! It represents the bread that Jesus shared with the Disciples during the Last Supper. It is typical all over the period of Holy Week in Sicily, especially in Messina.
On Easter Sunday, families gather to celebrate a rich meal. Among typical dishes for Easter celebrations in Sicily, pasta ‘ncasciata is ever-present, as a great classic of the Sicilian cuisine: traditional meal during Sundays lunches, it is baked pasta dressed with meat sauce, cheese, eggplants… by itself, it would be enough to be considered satisfied! As second course, it is common to eat roast goat or lamb: the lamb symbolizes Jesus’ sacrifice (Lamb of God). Also, it is prepared “u Sciuscieddu“, a soup prepared with meatballs, eggs and ricotta cheese.
Easter celebrations in Sicily, at the table, mean especially typical sweets. At the end of lunch, it is time to eat Colomba, that is a dove-shaped Easter cake (the dove stands for the Rising of Christ): it is common to find all over Italy, but in Sicily there are varieties with pistachio and citrus fruits.
Cuddura is a sweet donut with hard-boiled eggs.
Quaresimali are Sicilian biscuits made with almonds or nuts, prepared in particular during Lent.
Another typical sweet is the Marzipan lamb: it is a marzipan bread shaped as a lamb, with aromas of almonds, covered with fondant icing. On Easter Sunday it is common to exchange Easter Eggs, especially among children. They are chocolate eggs, that hide surprises inside. There are many varieties: white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, with pistachio and hazelnuts. Easter eggs are wrapped with coloured paper and bows.
Easter Monday is dedicated to barbecuing with friends, to go picnic taking advantage of the pleasant springtime sun. It is the end of Holy Week celebrations.