For most of my life, I’ve lived in places where August 15th wasn’t a big deal at all and I was always kind of sad about that because in Italy, especially in my dad’s home town of Monte di Procida, where my family still lives, Ferragosto is one of the finest days of the year.
Here in Ischia, Ferragosto marks the peak of the tourist season and the island is packed! The ferries this weekend brought in another 27,000 people and that’s not counting all the people arriving on their private boats. The beaches are packed, the restaurants are full and it’s mayhem at my local supermarket with all the holiday makers.
That said, it still feels festive and I’m excited that I get to live in a place where it means something. All my memories of the August holidays past are flooding back – those hot, sunny days sitting with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all shouting at the table in a glorious cacophony of words, songs and plates and plates of food.
But what does Ferragosto mean? When did it start?
Ferragosto is a public holiday in Italy as well as a major holiday in the Catholic Church marking the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. (Why do they call it the Assumption? Is it because they never found Mary’s body after she died and they assumed she went up into heaven?)
In Monte di Procida, where I’ve celebrated Ferragosto with my family many times, the day is one of the biggest holidays of the year. The main church in the piazza is called SS. Maria Assunta, dedicated to the Assumption, so they have to do up this festival in big style. There are three days of feasting in the piazza with lights, music and food. On the 15th, everyone goes to mass where the church is decorated in white and gold. After mass, there’s a giant procession with the statue of the Virgin Mary at the helm and a brass band follows playing the overture to Verdi’s Aida and all the people follow Mary down to the sea. In the evening, after everyone has busted their guts with a giant lunch, the beach fills up with people to watch the midnight firework display.
Growing up, I thought this was the way it was done all over Italy, but in lots of other places, most people just leave their homes to go to the beach.
If this holiday is more about going to the beach than taking part in a religious celebration, than how did this holiday come to be a big national celebration?
I did some research to figure out how this holiday came to be and while it started as an ancient Roman tradition, the way Italians celebrate it now began during the Fascist era.
Ferragosto has its origins in Ancient Rome. The holiday was established by Emperor Augustus and took place after the first major harvest around 1 August. It’s possible that this also coincided with the pagan holiday of mid-summer on 2 August that marks the mid-point between the Summer Solstice (21 June) and the Autumnal Equinox (21 September). The ancient Ferragosto aimed to unify the August holidays and create a longer period of rest which stretched out to a few weeks. When Catholicism arrived, as they did with many other pagan holidays, they adopted Ferragosto and moved it to coincide with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and claimed the 15th of August as the official day of Ferragosto.
The popular tradition of going away for Ferragosto began in the 1920s during the Fascist regime. The government, in conjunction with the various worker’s associations that organised trips, workshops, and events for the working class, offered a special promotion on train tickets during the three-day period surrounding Ferragosto. For the first time, working class families could afford to visit other cities in Italy as well as travel to the beach and the mountains. All these families, in order to keep costs down, would also pack food with them and this also started the tradition of picnicing on Ferragosto.
All of this could explain why many Italians today take a month-long holiday in August, stretching back to the ancient Roman tradition of a harvest holiday. The 15th marks the mid-point of the summer holiday, a pseudo-religious pseudo-pagan mid-summer feast.
The film Pranzo di ferragosto (2008) (English title: Mid-August Lunch) is a spectacular film about a man named Gianni who inadvertently ends up hosting a Ferragosto lunch of elderly women in Rome at his mother’s house while his friends, who have left their mothers with Gianni, flee the city for the beach for two days of freedom. The film captures the emptiness of the city during the national holiday, the laziness inspired by the August heat, and the unexpected joy at finding yourself making the most of a less than appealing situation. Watch the trailer:
My Ferragosto plans include an early morning walk down to the beach close to my house and a mid August lunch feasting on Rachel Roddy’s palermentina salad of roasted red peppers, potatoes and green beans. I’ll probably also sit in front of the fan eating watermelon with the cats while listening to the church bells ring. The day will end with a walk to the beach to watch the sunset and drink a cold glass of wine.
How will you celebrate Ferragosto?
Enjoy the day!