The cult of saints in Sicily – St. Agatha and Catania
From the very first days after moving to Sicily, everyone I had contact with (regardless of age) asked me one thing: when exactly would I be returning to Poland and whether I would still be in Catania at the beginning of February. I didn’t fully understand what they all meant. It didn’t change when they told me that the feast of St. Agatha is at this time and I must absolutely take part in the celebrations.
It seemed a bit strange to me – I am not a special fan of religious holidays in Poland – I don’t associate them with anything positive (rather seriousness and sadness), and certainly I wouldn’t say that they are something that a foreigner should necessarily have to participate in.
But the celebration of St. Agatha in Catania is a completely different category and now I know why the Sicilians wanted me to take part in them so much. And looking at what happened later in March 2020, I found it literally “at the last minute”.
I believe that each of you who would like to get to know and better understand the Sicilian culture should see this ceremony with your own eyes at least once in your life. This atmosphere cannot be expressed in words! Generally, Sicilians are not particularly religious, but when it comes to patron saints, which are a mixture of faith, tradition and amazing folklore, for these days they change their approach entirely.
In addition, based on the number of people participating, the feast of St. Agatha is the third largest religious festival in the world!
Why do the people of Catania idolize Saint Agatha?
Saint Agatha was born in Catania in the first half of the 3rd century and came from a wealthy family. When she was a teenager, she attracted the attention of the city prefect, who could not accept the fact that the girl decided to devote her life to God and is indifferent to his advances.
At first, he placed her in a brothel, hoping that she would change her mind after staying there. Agatha, however, was still adamant, so he condemned her to terrible torture – her breasts were cut off by drastic methods. Then, when her body was thrown onto the red-hot coals, an earthquake struck and she was transferred to a prison, where she died on February 5, 253 CE.
A year later, Mount Etna erupted, and the lava approaching the city threatened the lives of the inhabitants. So they went to Agatha’s tomb, took the red veil which she had been wrapped with during the torture and placed it in front of the city walls. And then a miracle happened – the lava changed its direction, bypassing Catania and saving the inhabitants. After these events, Agatha was recognized as a saint and until now faithfully protects the inhabitants of Catania from the eruptions of Mount Etna 🙂
Feast of St. Agatha – preparations
But let’s get to the gist, which is the events! The festive “excitement” begins about two weeks before the official celebrations – it is mid-January. And it is when – on the streets of Catania – I saw something that I completely couldn’t comprehend – “dancing” canderols, which are an announcement of „what’s going to happen”.
They are huge, gilded, wooden structures with baroque ornaments and with the huge candles in the center. They weigh between 400 and 900 kg and are worn by (depending on their severity) 4-12 men who move to the rhythm of joyful music performed on trumpets and other instruments live, followed by a crowd of Sicilians. I’ve never seen anything like this before! And that was just the beginning of my surprises.
During this time, the city is decorated with amazing Christmas illuminations (much more beautiful than Christmas ones!) and maroon sheets of fabric with the letter “A” embroidered. Pictures of Saint Agatha with her breasts cut off on a plate appear on the windows of shops, pharmacies and other places.
What’s more, the confectioneries are dominated by one dessert – Minne di Sant’Agata, or … the St. Agatha’s tits! These are cookies that consist of sweet ricotta, sponge cake and almond mass, decorated with a candied icing that imitates a nipple. They are intended to commemorate the great deeds of the beloved patron. Interesting habit, isn’t it!?
Official celebrations – blend in with the crowd of locals
However, the real “madness” begins on February 3rd and lasts until February 6th in the morning. There is then no topic other than the feast of St. Agatha – the whole city talks about this event! Approximately one million people take part in these three days!
The first day begins with a procession with candles, the so-called “Candle offering”. In the evening, fireworks take place in Piazza Duomo – one of the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life! Especially that I watched them from the roof of the boy’s friend’s apartment, from which there was a breathtaking view of the entire city. The fireworks display lasted half an hour and was accompanied by great music.
On the same day, the fire department climbs the ladder to touch the highest point of the cathedral and offer flowers in thanks for protection from fires and eruptions of Mount Etna.
The next day, a solemn mass takes place at dawn, followed by a statue of St. Agata with the relics officially leaves the Cathedral – she is placed in a special “carriage”, which will be bravely carried by the faithful over the next few days. Fireworks sound again (literally woke me up at 7am!) and the procession starts. Interestingly, there is even a special application that you can download and see in which part of the city is currently St. Agatha!
In the afternoon of February 5, the procession starts again and continues all night until the morning when the strength of the inhabitants is put to the test. They have to go along the steep San Giuliano Street and it is said to be the most difficult moment in the whole procession. When they reach via Crociferi, there is the last farewell to the saint, accompanied by the singing of the Benedictine nuns. Then the reliquary returns to the Cathedral and is hidden for the next year.
So what do you think? After reading this report, would you like to take part in the celebrations related to the feast of St. Agatha? Did I encourage you? Or maybe you have already had the opportunity to participate in them? Let me know in the comment!
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