"Entri come amici, vada come famiglia” –
"Come as friends, leave as family."
Growing up in Napoli and Bari, I celebrated Easter Christmas quite differently from American kids, even though my parents were American. If you’ve ever doubted the profound influence of and reverence for the Catholic faith in Italy, I would encourage you to visit Italy during Easter. Easter in Italy is an amazing holiday, second only to Christmas in its importance for Italians. You may know this, but the Easter parade in Italy is so not the Easter parade in the United States!
You would search in vain for fancy bonnets and the showing off of newest outfits. It’s truly about the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not about parading one’s finery or the Easter bunny hiding sweet treats for children. That is not to say I didn’t wear a yellow, organdy Easter frock, however, and yes, those are olive trees behind me.
I was fortunate to grow up in Southern Italy, in the Neapolitan and Pugliese regions, where tradition and faith are intertwined seamlessly in the culture and have been so for centuries untold. The days leading up to Easter are filled with solemn processions and masses, testimony to Italians’ deep reverence for their Catholic faith. In Italian, Easter is “Pasqua,” and it is a joyous celebration marked with meaningful rituals and timeless traditions.
The important, sacred religious processions are held everywhere in Italian cities and towns on the Friday or Saturday before Easter and sometimes on the Sunday holiday. Many churches have special statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that may be paraded through the city or displayed in the main squares. I thought these amazing processions were normal—the statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary carried through both ancient cobblestone and modern paved streets, swaying to the rhythm of their bearers. I had no idea this didn’t happen in the U.S.! Participants are often dressed in traditional ancient costumes, adding to the solemnity of the occasion. One of the processions takes place in Alberobello, (known for its cone-shaped trulli) one of my favorite little towns to visit near my hometown of Bari, during which dozens of participants parade in costume, with horses and flaming torches to celebrate the Living Passion of Christ. For a wide-eyed young child such as I, it was an amazing sight, and I looked forward to it with anticipation. Easter in Italy was truly an occasion to look forward to and to remember.
Of course, there is no celebration in Italy without food! As you know, sharing meals together during not only festival and holy days, but also during regular family dinners are an inextricable part of Italian culture. A well-loved Italian saying is, “Entri come amici, vada come famiglia” –“Come as friends, leave as family.” Elaborate feasts are the order of the day for Easter. When my family lived in Napoli, there was never an Easter dinner without la pastiera napoletana—a “pie” made with ricotta, orange, sugar, eggs, and cooked wheat. Neapolitans say la pastiera is the only thing sweeter in the world than the siren’s voice in The Odyssey. Of course, everyone has his or her own ricetta perfetta (perfect recipe) for la pastiera—a constant debate in Napoli!
Another tradition across all Italy is the lamb cake, made with almond flour or flavoring and baked in a lamb-shaped mold. I was fortunate that my parents knew it was important to adopt and respect local customs, so my Midwestern mother bought a lamb cake mold (still in the family) and the lamb cake graced the table as a centerpiece until we dove into it as the dessert for the Sunday Easter lunch. The lamb, of course, symbolizes Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Some say that Easter is the sweetest holiday in Italy, and treats such as almond biscotti, sarcelle, and chocolate eggs symbolizing fertility and rebirth are everywhere, which I always enjoyed—especially when I could discover a little treat or a small toy hidden inside the elaborate chocolate eggs that our Italian friends would bring me.
Another Italian favorite saying is “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi”—”Christmas with family, Easter with friends.” La Pasquetta, (“little Easter”), the Monday after Easter Sunday, is also a public holiday throughout the country. Everyone invited brings something to share at the picnic together, including items left over from Sunday’s meal of, most probably, lamb, asparagus, artichokes, and other spring vegetables. Eggs, in many variations, symbolizing fertility and rebirth are again featured, from fritattas to hard-boiled eggs to quiches—and the stories, the traditions, and the warm laughter continue around the picnic tablecloth or table, under the olive trees.
You can well imagine my shock, moving to the United States—supposedly my “passport country’—finding that Easter was such an entirely different celebration! Of course, I do miss not only the pageantry (and the chocolate eggs 😉 ), but also the pervasive, national reverence for the deeper meaning of Easter.
About Margo Sorenson. Author of over thirty traditionally-published books for young readers, Margo Sorenson spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, devouring books and Italian food and still speaks (or tries!) her childhood languages. Her most recent Adult/Young Adult novel, SECRETS IN TRANSLATION (Fitzroy Books, October 2018), takes place in Positano, with heroine Alessandra, whose being able to speak Italian helps her to feel at home in Italy, once again—and solve a mystery that threatens those she loves. Of course, it would make a great Easter gift for adults and teens alike! For more information on ordering these and Margo’s other books, please visit www.margosorenson.com