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Celebrating Easter in Italy

In Italy, Pasqua is a very important feast and one of the biggest holidays in the Italian calendar. A visit to any part of Italy during this period is an event not to be missed with processions, religious rituals, celebrations and of course wonderful food.

I have always enjoyed this time of year – warmer weather, longer days, the first flowers, nature waking up after the long winter sleep and life in my home village on the Amalfi coast was busy and active once more.

The Easter ritual begins with Palm Sunday, marking the start of what is known as Holy Week, when olive branches are blessed in church. I remember as a child the main square would be littered with branches and my friends and I would collect them and see who could pick up the most.

During Holy Week, the shops would suddenly become busy; the greengrocer came alive with colour as they filled with the season’s new produce, the butcher, after the quiet period of Lent when meat was forbidden, was happily hanging up baby lamb and goat, and chickens were on display. Pastry shops, too, would decorate their windows with huge chocolate eggs and casatielli – round pastries decorated with a cross and sugared baby lambs. As children, we enjoyed looking into the windows and counted the days until Easter Sunday when we could indulge in these sweet treats.

Good Friday

Most towns and villages in Italy hold solemn religious processions on Good Friday and my home village of Minori is no exception. It has always been a highlight and people flock here from other nearby towns and villages for this spectacular event. The church and village transforms itself into a living theatre depicting the passion of Christ; local adults and children participate and dress up in the traditional battenti costume – long white tunics with pointed hoods covering the head and face, except for two small holes for eyes, and a thick rope tied around the waist. When I was a child I participated and loved to dress up. Others play the part of Christ and the other relevant characters. Sorrowful laments are sung as the Easter story is enacted and watched by hundreds of people. As night falls, the whole village is lit up with candles and as you look from the beach it is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Easter Sunday

Waking up on Easter Sunday morning to the sound of church bells ringing loudly as locals head to church to celebrate the resurrection mass is a joy. The village square is teeming with people immaculately dressed for this this joyous occasion, the pasticcerie (pastry shops) are busy selling pastiera di grano – a traditional Easter speciality only really known in Naples and surrounding areas. Easter just wouldn’t be the same without this delicious wheat and ricotta tart. I remember as a child, we, like most of the other families, made lots during Easter to give away as presents. I still make these at home in England now and maintain the same tradition. This dessert is believed to date back to pagan times, when Neapolitans would offer all the fruits of their land to the mermaid, Partenope, with eggs for fertility, wheat from the land, ricotta from the shepherds, the aroma of orange flowers, vanilla to symbolise faraway countries and sugar in honour of the sweet mermaid. It is said the mermaid would take these ingredients, immerse herself in the sea of the Bay of Naples and give back to the Neapolitans a dessert that symbolised fertility and rebirth.

In other parts of Italy, especially in the north, the traditional Easter dessert is Colomba, a dove-shaped cake made with sweet dough, topped with sugar granules. Easter breads are popular and each region has its own varieties. In Campania, we make Casatiello, a round loaf enriched with bits of salami, cheese and whole eggs, delicious for Easter breakfast.

For Easter lunch, baby lamb (called abbacchio in Lazio), or baby goat is commonly enjoyed with all the new vegetables of the season – fresh peas, broad beans, baby courgettes and artichokes.

Easter Monday

Easter Monday, known as Pasquetta is the day Italians go out of town with friends and family, usually to enjoy the first picnic of the season. As a child, we would go up into the hills above the village armed with lots of goodies to eat - frittata di spaghetti (omelette made with cooked pasta), torta Pasqualina (ricotta & spinach quiche), local salami, cheese and wine. Some would even bring camping stoves and barbeques to cook food there. It was a lovely get together, a delicious feast and a wonderful end to the Easter celebrations.

Probably the biggest and grandest Easter celebrations are held in Rome, where hordes of people from all over the world congregate in St Peter’s Square for the Pope’s traditional Easter blessing and mass. Wherever you decide to spend Easter in Italy – the cities, northern lakes, Tuscan hills, charming Puglia, the islands, Amalfi Coast, you will experience an Easter like no other. Even if you’re not religious, the processions and celebrations will surely enchant and be in your memory for ever. For more detailed information on what is happening in each region, ask Citalia, the knowledgeable Italian Holiday experts.

Enjoy and Buona Pasqua!