Every year, the Feast of Saint Agatha proves to be a truly unmissable event, celebrating a woman of unwavering faith.
A three-days festivity, thousands of devotees, one city immersed between folklore and faith. Sacred meets profane when it comes to the one and only Feast of Saint Agatha, the most important religious celebration in Catania.
Every year, from February 3rd to 5th, time stops. A million of people, including devotees and curious tourists, gather all together to celebrate Agatha, the city’s patron saint. The feast is the third in the world, following the Holy Week in Seville and the Feast of Corpus Christi in Cuzco, Peru.
There are numerous Sicilian wonders part of the UNESCO World Heritage and the Feast of Saint Agatha is no less. Indeed, it has been listed among Catania’s World Ethno-Anthropological Heritage Sites. We’re talking about a not-to-be missed event, whether you’re a local or en passant.
Agatha, the story of a miracle girl
Spoiler alert: this is a case of nomen omen, when the name is a sign. Agatha derives from the Greek word “ἀγαθός”, which means good, loving, selfless. It’s the story of a courageous woman who became the greatest example of self-denial and unwavering faith.
A miracle girl, a martyr, a saint
Agatha was a young girl from a rich family, living in Catania under the Roman domination in the third century A.C. Back then, the proconsul Quinziano persecuted anyone who was not devoted to the pagan gods. Therefore, there was no room for Christianity and Agatha was forced to profess her faith in secret. Struck by her beauty – or most likely by her wealth – Quinziano fell in love with her. But the reckless Agatha, regardless of the rules, consecrated herself to Christianity. When asked to repudiate her faith, her response was inflexible devotion. When induced to succumb to Quinziano’s desires, Agatha did not give in. “Her head is harder than Etna’s lava”, they would say.
Failing to dissuade Agatha, the punishments she suffered were outrageous: from fasting and flogging to the atrocious cutting off of her breast with tongs. When Agatha was later brought to prison, Peter, the apostle of Jesus, appeared to her, restored her mutilated breasts and healed her wounds. The girl’s unwavering faith condemned her to the last of tortures, a bed of burning coals. Here comes another plot twist, another prodigious event. While Agatha’s body was being battered by fire, she was wearing a red veil, symbol of her consecration to God, which didn’t burn. It is said that this precious relic stopped Etna’s lava streams several times.
Exactly one year after Agatha’s death, on 5 February 252, a violent eruption on Mount Etna threatened Catania. Many Christians and citizens ran to her tomb, took her veil and held it up to the fiery lava, managing to stop its flow. Since then, Agatha became not only the patron saint of the city, but the protectress against volcanic eruptions and fires.
«Viva Sant’Agata!». The days of celebration
Day 1 – Preparations
Day one is for preparations. On February 3rd, the Feast of Saint Agatha opens with the procession of the so-called candelore. They are wide candle-shaped wooden structures, each representing the city’s arts and crafts. Carved, gilded and built following the Sicilian Baroque style, the candelore are decorated with putti, flowers, statues and images of Agatha’s life and martyrdom. This traditional candles parade culminates with fireworks in Piazza Duomo, where Saint Agatha’s Cathedral is located.
Day 2 – Let the feast begin
February 4th sets the very first, intimate encounter between the saint and her devotees, starting at dawn with the Aurora Mass. Highlight of the celebration is when Agatha’s reliquary bust is hoisted onto a silver-plated ferculum. The saint leaves the Cathedral and is carried around the streets of Catania. The “fercolo” does its tour amid the crowd’s acclamations and chants, stopping by the commemorative places of Agatha’s martyrdom. However, the most eagerly awaited moment is the renowned “cchianata de’ Cappuccini”, when the fercolo is hauled running up to the square of San Domenico. The procession finally ends with the return to the Cathedral early in the morning.
Day 3 – End of the celebration
Last but not least, February 5th is the third and final day of celebration. The feast begins with the solemn Pontifical mass, officiated by the highest religious, civil and military authorities. In the afternoon, the inner-city procession takes place, proceeding slowly to Piazza Cavour, known as ‘u burgu. Passing through Via Etnea, the fercolo stops at Via dei Crociferi, where Agatha is commemorated with the evocative chants of the cloistered nuns. The tour continues until the saint’s reliquary bust goes back to the Cathedral the morning after.
If you visit Catania in the beginning of February, you recognize the festive mood also by the devotees’ outfit. Kids and adults wear the traditional votive dress, u saccu, a white tunic tied at the waist with a monastic cord. On their heads, they carry the so-called scunzetta, a black skullcap, whilst on their chest the red and green cockade. Another essential item that all devotees have is the immaculate handkerchief. They wave it during the whole procession, calling out in a loud voice “We are all devotees, long live Saint Agatha!”.
The Feast of Saint Agatha goes pop. Catania’s street food
In Sicily we can’t help it: we turn any festivity into a gastronomic experience. During the Feast of Saint Agatha, Catania is full of stalls where you can buy and munch sweet and savory specialties as you stroll through the procession.
Catania’s street food
Catania’s street food is simple but still rich and varied. What you definitely can’t miss tasting is the protagonist of the feast, the iconic Minna di Sant’Agata. A breast-shaped cassatina that takes its name after Agatha’s brave sacrifice. Ricotta cheese, marzipan and powdered sugar are the main ingredients of this meaningful sweet, an homage to Aituzza’s courage and determination.
We all know the true king of Sicilian food is the arancino, the famous fried rice ball. You can taste the traditional one stuffed with meat sauce or try many other different types.
The tasty crispeddi are a must-try as well. It’s fried rice flavoured with orange zest and sweetened with a drizzle of honey and a dusting of icing sugar. There is also a salty version, made of bread filled with fresh ricotta or anchovies.
Also worth mentioning are the marzipan olivette, which are sweets dipped in caster sugar crystals or melted chocolate. These olives recall when Agatha, hunted by Quinziano’s soldiers, bent down to tie her shoe. There, she instantly saw an olive tree spring up and she was able to hide and eat its fruit.
The best luxury holiday villas near Catania
Get into the festive mood next February. Discover the Feast of Saint Agatha and enjoy our holiday villas near Catania.
Penthouse Duomo, Catania
Penthouse Duomo is a luxury apartment right in the heart of Catania’s city-centre. This dwelling features large terraces boasting fabulous views of Mount Etna and Piazza Duomo. Exquisitely finished and furnished, Penthouse Duomo is the best property to discover and enjoy the Feast of Saint Agatha in Catania. It’s also an excellent starting point to visit the Etna Park, Aci Trezza and Aci Castello, Taormina and Syracuse.
La Torretta, Mount Etna
Set on the slopes of Mount Etna, La Torretta is an old rural farmhouse recently restored and converted into an exclusive property. It features an amazing saltwater pool with panoramic views, large terraces and a wellness area with Jacuzzi, Turkish bath and multi-sensory shower. The position of the villa is also great to reach the natural Etna Park and the towns of Taormina, Catania and Syracuse.
Tenuta della Contea, Mount Etna
A luxury villa with pool between Mount Etna and the sea. That’s Tenuta della Contea, surrounded by large gardens boasting magnificent views of Taormina bay, Aci Trezza and the Etna volcano. The villa is a perfect blend between ancient and modern, with spacious terraces and infinity saltwater pool. It’s also an excellent base to explore the splendid baroque towns of Catania, Syracuse and Noto.
Palmento Monterosso, Mount Etna
The charming hillside of Mount Etna is the amazing setting of Palmento Monterosso, a beautiful country house situated close to Trecastagni, near Catania. It has been expertly renovated to retain its old charm, character and original architectural features. Situated close to the Etna National Park and the wine route, it’s the ideal property to enjoy delicious wine and gastronomy tours. You can also visit other nice villages, such as Piedimonte and Zafferana and the renowned towns of Taormina and Siracusa.