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Ferragosto Reveals Italy's Two Faces
The annual August holiday is the line at which Italy's desire to enjoy the pleasures of life meets its Catholicism
I'm heading to Italy just in time to witness the throngs of Italians taking off from work – and basically their lives – in August. That's right. The entire country pretty much takes the entire month of August off for summer vacation – adults and children alike. The pinnacle of this month-long shut down comes on Aug. 15, Ferragosto, which is the ultimate Italian holiday and has both religious and secular significance.
My people in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples whose economy is dependent on tourism, actually work in August. In 2010, with this economic crisis pounding Europe, August might be the only month of work for the Ischitani. The tourists become our theater. The northerners who sun themselves on Maronti beach, the rich and famous who dock their yachts in our porto, and the Napoletani who shout at each other from down the street are characters in a wildly imaginative play. August in Ischia is proof that the Italians are not joking when they talk about their dolce vita or sweet life.
Although for some Italians, especially those in the more responsible and serious-minded north, the August vacation seems to get shorter every year, the tradition of taking it easy at the end of summer goes back centuries to the rule of Roman Emperor Augustus for whom the month is named. In 18 BC, Emperor Augustus declared that the whole month should be honored with festivals and celebrations. The most important of the events was held on Aug. 13 in honor of Diana, goddess of the woods, phases of the moon, and maternity, according to the Orange County Italian Cultural Association (OCICA).
Women who made offerings throughout the year in the hope that their labor would be safe and happy would pray to Lucina, the guise Diana assumed when acting as the protector of labor, according to OCICA. These festivities also honored the end of the hard labor in the fields ahead of the harvest. Marked by eating, drinking, and sexual excesses, the August celebrations brought hedonism to a new level by uniting masters and slaves in gorging.
All these pagan shenanigans became a problem when Christianity came around. It was sinful and the sinners had to be stopped. The Christians decided to use the goddess of maternity feast as an impetus to make the August celebrations about the Virgin Mary. In the eighteenth century, people started to celebrate the assumption, when Mary was transported directly to Heaven, on Aug. 15, which is also known as Ferragosto. But it wasn't until 1950 that Pope Pius XII formally proclaimed the celebration of the assumption. You still with me?
Today, Aug. 15 is both a holy day of obligation in Italy and the feast day of Ferragosto. What this means is that the pagan eating, drinking, and sex – otherwise known as the dolce vita – now mingles with reverence for the Virgin Mother. It is the ultimate symbol of the two faces of Italy colliding. And it is quite a show.
While I never suggest people vacation in Italy in August (too crowded, too expensive, too much), Ferragosto and the rest of the month are a cultural phenomenon completely unknown to outsiders. It's like a full moon. Wild things happen. Some people go host elaborate dinners for friends and family (or the guests at the hotels, in the case of the Ischitani). Others camp out on the beach under the stars and moonlight. Still others go to church and pray to Mary. There are often fireworks, and the nightclubs are bustling with people in a party mood. Many people do a combination of those very different celebrations.
Frankly, Ferragosto is a rather full day for the Italians. Many of them begin the holiday with prayers and end it with some drunken revelry. To honor this blessed occasion, I will observe Ferragosto in all its glory. It is one of my favorite shows, after all. I'll be sure to call on the Virgin Mary, gorge on pasta and gelato, take in the sun, and make passionate love to my husband in less than 24 hours. Amen.
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