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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ferragosto: Closed For The Month Of August

FERRAGOSTO, literally translated from Italian, means August holiday. It also means three to four weeks of vacation for most Italians.


Everything except tourist attractions are closed for the month, and the Italians head for the beaches or mountains. If you travel in Italy during August, most of the people you encounter in the cities are other tourists, foreigners, and a few disgruntled Italians who work in the tourist industry.

The idea of getting an automatic, mandatory three weeks off would be unheard of in most countries. But when the company, government office, or business you work for closes for the month, what else can you do? The Italians have done this for hundreds of years, regardless of the economy. They may have to work harder in July to get projects and tasks completed, but come August, they are out of there.

A mass exodus from the big cities always creates traffic problems, news articles, and the incessant question, "Where are you going this year?" 



Like most holidays in Italy and much of the western world, the origins of Ferragosto date back nearly 3,000 years to the early Romans.

The festival of the Consuali, dedicated to Conso, the god of the harvest, took place on August 23 (or, if you accept Plutarch's version, on August 18) and workers and animals were granted a time of rest after the harvest. It was unique in that it was the only festival when masters, freemen, and slaves celebrated together.

Legend tells us it was initiated by Romulus, founder of Rome, and according to the ancient stories, it was at the first games for the Consuali that the Sabine women were abducted as future wives for the Romans.

Romulus' followers were mostly men, so after the founding of Rome they tried to negotiate with a nearby city state, the Sabines, for wives. The Sabines, however, feared the emergence of a rival society, and they brought negotiations to a screeching halt.

So the Romans planned an abduction during a festival--some sources say it was the Festival of Neptune Equester, others say the festival of the Consuali, or maybe they were the same thing. All the surrounding peoples and city states were invited, including the Sabines. During the festivities, the Romans snatched the Sabine women, then battled and defeated the Sabine men.

According to the writings of Livy and Plutarch, there was no sexual assault involved—rape in this context means taking the women away by force. Romulus offered the women free choice and, if they accepted Roman husbands, promised civic and property rights to them.

Apparently, many accepted, because not long after there was a war between the Sabines and the Romans. The Sabine women who had become Roman wives stopped the fighting by inserting themselves between their Sabine fathers and Roman husbands on the battlefield and demanding that the war cease. They said they would rather die than to lose both husbands and fathers. The fighting stopped.

In my opinion, this is an example of how much better off the world would be if women were the leaders, not men. We operate on a more compassionate win-win level. The Rape of the Sabine women has been a favorite subject for sculptors and painters over the centuries. I think it would make a terrific historical novel.

Another version of the origins is that the name is latin (Ferie augusti) for Augustus holiday. Some sources indicate that the tradition began in 18 AD when Emperor Augustus celebrated the end of the harvest season with three weeks of rest and activities. These sources also cite the unusual practice of mingling all social classes at these events.

Take your pick of legends. Actually, they're are not mutually exclusive.


With the rise of the Roman Catholic faith, church authorities stepped in and turned the pagan festival into a religious celebration, proclaiming Ferragosto, celebrated on the fifteenth of August, as the Feast of the Assumption. This is the Roman Catholic feast day that celebrates the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the end of her earthly life, physically ascended into heaven.

While origins of this religious belief remain vague, by the fourth and fifth centuries AD it was mentioned in religious texts. There are debates about it, but by 847 it was solidly embedded in Roman Catholicism.

At some time during the Renaissance, to celebrate the assumption, the Church made it obligatory to recognize workers with a bonus in relation to this feast. That was, apparently, the beginning of the modern Italian practice to give workers a tredicesima, or thirteenth month paycheck.

To this day, my husband, who gets a pension from the Italian government, receives a 13th month payment every year. However, because he lives outside Italy, he isn't entitled to it. Still, each December, the Italian government sends his tredicesima. Then, in May they send a letter telling him he isn't entitled to it, and that they're deducting it from his June payment. It's happened that way for years. Don't these people have computers now?


In addition to swarming the beaches and going to the mountains, contemporary Italians celebrate the holiday in various ways, many of them traditions that have existed for centuries. And, of course, everyone has a big family feast.

In Sienna the famous horse race Il Palio dell'Assunta is held on August 16 in honor of the Assumption of Mary. Ten horses, whose riders wear the colors representing the ten city wards, ride bareback through the streets. It's a "must see" if you're in Italy in August.

At one point in time, the Romans used to flood Piazza Navona and hold boat races. Another source claims it was customary to spray everyone with water and push them into this artificial lake. This is linked to the older rites focusing on Neptune and purification with water. This particular tradition has been discontinued.

Another ancient rite associated with the harvest festival was purification with fire, so in the countryside, you'll see many bonfires. In Trapani, there is a procession where the townspeople burn the grass along the procession route.

The City of Messina, my husband's home town, there is a procession called La Vara--the word derived from the verb meaning to launch--itself is actually a three- to four-story statue representing the assumption.

It is pulled through the cobblestone streets of Messina mounted on wooden beams like railroad ties, by people wanting to do penance. Dressed in white and barefoot, they pull on huge ropes to drag the statue about five miles to the cathedral.

Sorry, but these are really old photos that have faded a lot over the last forty years.

A city water truck drives in front of the procession spraying water on the cobblestone streets to make the pulling easier. It's a very moving spectacle. I remember one year they tried putting the statue on wheels, so it would be easier to pull, and everyone complained. They went back to the wooden beams.


Another Ferragosto tradition that I've experienced is Cocomerata, or watermelon feast. August is the time for watermelons. On August 15, my husband's family in Messina eats a big dinner (usually at someone's beach house), gets inebriated in various degrees, and finishes with watermelon for dessert. That turns into a food fight where everyone chases each other around and smears their faces and bodies with watermelon.

They celebrate Cocomerata all over Italy, but I'm hot sure about the food fight/watermelon smearing tradition. It seemed to be common in 
Sicily where we celebrated, so it wasn't just my family.


Closing down for three to four weeks in the middle of the tourist season may not make sense to others or seem economically feasible in today's world-driven economy, but it's been a tradition in Italy for eons. 

Employers may be looking at a shorter Ferie (holiday) in the future, and Italians may have to chose more affordable locations to enjoy their days of rest, but Ferragosto has survived through hard times, two world wars, and a myriad of other crises. It will come this year, and next year, and the year after that. I don't see it going away.

So on August 15, sit back, relax, drink a glass or two of wine (or other beverage of your choice), and eat some watermelon.



Tina Donahue said...

Love the photos - wish I could go there. *sigh*

R. Ann Siracusa said...

Tina, I'm going to the Matera Women's Fiction Festival (a writer's conference for women) in September in Matera, Italy. Trying to deal with the travel agency in Italy inspired me write this, since everyone is gone on vacation. Very frustrating.

Paris said...

It's lovely to see that some traditions survive but I will never plan a trip to Italy in the month of August! Have a great time at the Festival and let us know how everything went.

artlover said...

Reminds e of when as ignorant tourists we book a train leaving Rome on August ist. Never saw anything like the crowd and the mad scramble to get a seat. Now it's funny, but not then. Our mistake, though.

Melissa Keir said...

Sounds like heaven. I know that many of the US automakers shut down for a few weeks to retool and force a mandatory vacation. It would be nice to have that time for vacation. :)

Cara Marsi said...

Thank you. I love Rome, modern and ancient. The first time I visited Rome, it was during August. Yes, I remember that most Italians were on vacation. I wish we followed the Italian custom here.

Ann, enjoy the Matera Women's Fiction Festival. I hear it's great. My Australian cousin who spends half the year in Italy wanted me to go a few years ago but I oouldn't. I don't speak Italian.

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