“But a religious festival, what is a religious festival in Sicily? It would be easy to say that it is everything but a religious festival: it is, first and foremost, an existential explosion”.Leonardo Sciascia
These are the words used by the famous Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia to describe the cultural significance of Sicily’s religious celebrations.
Sicily is a region rich in folklore and traditions, which have their roots in the history of this land, in the sacred and profane. Sicily’s traditional celebrations and folkloric events have a deep and rooted meaning, reflecting the region’s culture and its identity, particularly at Easter. Let’s discover some of the most unique events during Easter in Sicily.
The Madonna Vasa Vasa procession in Modica
A significant example of these religious traditions is the ‘Madonna Vasa Vasa’ procession that takes place in the charming Baroque town of Modica. Held annually on Easter Sunday, this religious procession is one of Sicily’s most unique and characteristic Easter celebrations, drawing thousands of tourists and believers from every corner of Italy, and beyond.
During this celebration, two processions carrying the simulacra of the Risen Christ and the mourning Virgin Mary cross the city of Modica. Starting from the church of Santa Maria di Betlem, the two statues are carried through the streets of Modica following different paths, until they finally meet at midday in the central Piazza Monumento. This is the most anticipated moment of the celebration and is known as “la vasata” (the kiss): the Madonna and Jesus are reunited on the day of his resurrection and, as their statues meet, they perform a symbolic gesture representing a hug between mother and son. The scene is later reenacted in the squares of San Pietro and Largo Santa Maria.
The ‘Madonna Vasa Vasa’ festival is a central event for the city of Modica, which maintains a strong connection with ancient traditions. In the past, local farmers considered the ‘vasata’ a good omen for the harvest season. Like other Easter celebrations, the success or failure of the event was seen as a sign: if the encounter between the two statues went smoothly, the harvest would be bountiful.
The “Festa dei Giudei” in San Fratello
The ‘Festa dei Giudei’ (Feast of the Jews) is a unique and must-attend Easter celebration that draws hundreds of believers, locals, and curious tourists every year. During Holy Week, from Wednesday to Good Friday, the people of San Fratello, a small Sicilian town near Messina, dress up as Judeans and pretend to mock and disturb the sacred and mourning ritual of Jesus’ Passion and death.
The Judean costume, which is usually homemade, consists of red muslin trousers and a jacket with yellow cloth details, adorned with ornaments inspired by the Arab tradition. The “Judean” masks their face under a red hood with a cross embroidered on its tip, symbolizing the devilish nature of the character.
Dressed in their costumes, the people of San Fratello roam the streets of the town, following the religious procession that commemorates Christ’s Passion and blowing trumpets to celebrate his death. The contrast with the solemnity of the religious event reaches its peak on Good Friday when the procession following Christ’s cross is interrupted by the arrival of the Judeans and their mocking songs.
Preparations for the Easter celebrations in San Fratello, however, begin well before the Holy Week. Several months before the Feast, the town is alive with tireless preparations, from trumpet rehearsals to the design and creation of traditional costumes.
Byzantine Easter celebrations in Piana degli Albanesi
Easter celebrations in Piana degli Albanesi, a town in the province of Palermo, are another significant example of Sicily’s unique cultural and religious traditions.
Piana degli Albanesi was founded in the 15th century by a small community of Albanian refugees, who settled in Sicily to escape the Ottoman invasion of their homeland, bringing with them their unique cultural heritage, including their Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, their language and customs. The community of Piana degli Albanesi has preserved Albanian cultural traditions and rites over the centuries, and elements of the Byzantine culture are still evident today in the town’s Eastern celebrations.
Easter celebrations in Piana degli Albanesi begin on Palm Sunday with the blessing of palm fronds in front of the Church of St. Nicholas, followed by a procession.
One of the most anticipated and evocative rites of Holy Week takes place on Maundy Thursday: the ceremony of foot washing. Reenacting the original scene recounted in the Gospel of John, which for the occasion is read during the mass in the Albanian language, a priest agrees to have his feet washed by the Eparch.
Easter celebrations in Piana degli Albanesi culminate on Easter Sunday with the liturgical celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. After the mass, a procession of women dressed in traditional costumes fills the town’s streets, reaching the church of St. Mary Odigitria, where the priest blesses red eggs, a symbol of Christ’s resurrection in Byzantine tradition, and gifts them to tourists and believers.
Throughout Holy Week, the entire town is enlivened by traditional Albanian dance and music performances, fireworks and other cultural activities.
The Mysteries of Trapani
The Procession of the Mysteries, considered one of the oldest and most majestic processions in the Catholic world, is an Easter celebration held annually in the city of Trapani. During this procession, twenty large wooden sculptures called Misteri (Mysteries), representing the Passion and death of Christ, are carried on the shoulder by local devotees.
The procession route spans over 20 kilometres, passing through the historic centre of Trapani. The sculptures are carried by the so-called ‘massari’, who sway the floats through a peculiar undulating movement known as the ‘annacata’.
The procession starts on the afternoon of Good Friday, when the statues of the Mysteries exit the church Chiesa del Purgatorio and are then carried through the streets of the city centre at night. This solemn procession is accompanied by drums and funeral marches played by a marching band.
On Saturday morning, the procession reaches the main square Piazza Purgatorio and the Mysteries are carried inside the Purgatorio Church, attracting hundreds of visitors and believers eager to witness the last ‘annacate’. This is the most awaited moment of the procession: the city celebrates with fireworks and classical music concerts.
The origins of this celebration date back to ancient times. Similar to what happens in other Sicilian towns, the Mysteries originated from a fusion of pre-Christian rites with Christian Easter. Their theatricality is, not surprisingly, reminiscent of pagan rites.