An Italian Easter

La Colomba (the Dove) is the traditional Easter cake in Italy. iStock by GETTY IMAGES

Francesca Cavallo

Easter brings to mind egg hunts, chocolate, jelly beans, and the Easter bunny.

In Christianity, Easter is the holiest and oldest of all traditions, and it’s related to the even more ancient Jewish festival of Passover, which is described in the Old Testament. Both holidays are often celebrated at the same time of year, in the same week. Passover takes place over one week in remembrance of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. For Christians, Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion.

Many things about Easter are neither Jewish nor Christian in origin. For example, the English name “Easter” and the German name “Ostern” are both derived from old Germanic roots. Also, the traditions of having an Easter eve bonfire or burning Easter wheels come from Germanic and Celtic heliolatry, or sun worship. Even the popular colorful Easter egg has its origins in another pagan belief: it was considered a symbol of fertility in Egypt.

Today, eggs are synonymous with Easter in many countries, including Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland. At the end of Lent, hard-boiled eggs are colored, Easter trees or bouquets are decorated with little wooden figurines and hollowed-out painted eggs, and people buy or bake special sweet Easter breads, often bursting with raisins.

But how is Easter viewed and celebrated in Italy? There is an Italian proverb which says: ‘Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi (Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you wish), which illustrates the fact that Pasqua (Easter) is considered a less intimate festival than Christmas. You probably won’t see the Easter bunny if you’re in Italy for Easter, but you will find some interesting Italian Easter celebrations. Like all holidays in Italy, Easter has its share of rituals and traditions. The Monday following Easter, la Pasquetta is also a public holiday throughout Italy. While the days before Easter in Italy include solemn processions and masses, Easter is a joyous celebration.

Easter mass is held in every church in Italy, and the biggest and most popular Mass is held by the Pope at Saint Peter’s Basilica. On Good Friday, the Pope celebrates the Via Crucis or Stations of the Cross in Rome near the Colosseum. A huge cross with burning torches lights the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages. At the end, the Pope gives a blessing. Solemn religious processions are held in many towns on the Friday or Saturday before Easter and sometimes on Easter Sunday. Many churches have special statues of the Virgin and Jesus that play a big part in the processions. The statues may be paraded through the city or displayed in the main square. Parade participants are often dressed in traditional ancient costumes. Olive branches are often used instead of, or along with, palm fronds in the processions and to decorate churches.

Since Easter is the end of the Lenten season, food plays a big part in the celebrations. Normally we spend Domenica di Pasqua (Easter Sunday) with the family, engaged in the traditional act of stuffing ourselves with food, such as roasted lamb or kid, hard boiled eggs, which have been taken to church to be blessed at the end of the Mass, and of course chocolate eggs. The traditional Easter cake is la Colomba (the Dove), a cake similar in flavor and consistency to the Christmas cake Panettone, but baked in the form of a stylized dove.

It’s studded with candied orange peel, then topped with almonds and a sprinkling of sugar to form a crisp, nutty crust.

Numerous myths surround the Colomba cake. According to one particularly dramatic story, the city of Milan was defending itself against invaders on Easter in 1176. Just when the Milanese seemed destined to lose the battle, three doves flew over the city. Soon after, the battle shifted and the invaders were vanquished. Legend holds that after the victory, the Milanese celebrated by eating cakes shaped like their savior doves.

Although Italians do not decorate hard–boiled eggs nor have chocolate bunnies, nor pastel marshmallow chicks, the biggest Easter displays in bars, pastry shops, supermarkets, and especially at chocolatiers are brightly wrapped uova di Pasqua (chocolate Easter eggs) in sizes that range from 10 grams (1/3 ounce) to 8 kilos (nearly 18 pounds).

Most of them are made of milk chocolate in a mid-range, 10-ounce size by industrial chocolate makers.

All eggs contain a surprise. The very best eggs are handmade by artisans of chocolate, who offer the service of inserting a surprise supplied by the purchaser. Car keys, engagement rings, and watches are some of the high–end gifts that have been tucked into Italian chocolate eggs in Italy.

Another traditional Easter dessert that’s popular in Naples and southern Italy is pastiera, a ricotta and whole grain pie with a mouthwatering aroma so distinctive that any blindfolded Neapolitan could instantly identify it. Pastiera is considered by many to be one of Italy’s most important desserts. It is prepared in special pans, whose edges angle slightly outward. The pie is often given away as a gift and always in the pan it was baked in because of its fragile pastry. The pie needs to rest for two days for the flavors to meld, so it’s traditionally finished on Good Friday so that it will be ready for Easter. Pastiera has become so popular that it is now available year-round in Naples.

The day following Domenica di Pasqua is Lunedi’ di Pasqua (Easter Monday), better known as Pasquetta (Little Easter) or LunedidellAngelo (Monday of the Angel). The name Lunedi’ dellAngelo refers to the Gospel story in which the women who went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body the day after Easter were told by an angel that Jesus had been resurrected. This day is probably the most popular part of the festivities for Italians, and it’s traditional to celebrate Pasquetta with a “gita fuori porta“ (a trip outside the city gates), usually for a picnic with friends. One interpretation of this tradition comes, once again, from a Gospel story which recounts that on the day of the resurrection, Jesus appeared to two disciples who were travelling to Emmaus a few kilometers outside the city gates of Jerusalem. The gita fuori porta tradition could be seen as a kind of “re-enactment“ of this story, although like many traditions most people are not really aware of its origins. A way to spend the gita fuori porta is a visit to a small historical town. Many of these towns will hold an event, such as an antique market, and will be packed with tourists. Whatever is done for Pasquetta, the deciding factor is, of course, the weather: everybody always hopes for a beautiful sunny warm day.

I wish to everybody a peaceful and happy Easter. Buona Pasqua a tutti!

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