Ferragosto, 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.
Chiuso Per Ferie - Closed for the Holidays
Beaches in Italy in August Italian Alps in the summer
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. However, 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.
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.
IN THE MIDDLE AGES
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 in December.
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?
FERRAGOSTO IN ITALY TODAY
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. Italians never miss an opportunity for a 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 very exciting event and a "must see" if you're in Italy in August. Photos by Patricia Winton
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.
In the City of Messina, my husband's home town, there is a procession called La Vara. La Vara, which is derived from the verb meaning to launch, itself is actually a three- to four-story statue representing The Assumption of Mary. It is pulled through the 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.
Another 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 feast (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 other people's faces with watermelon.
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. The food fight is optional.