If one visits Italy on the days around the 15th of August, you could be forgiven for assuming that it was a nation on the move complete with tailbacks of refugees fleeing their homes …. however – you would be wrong.
The Ferragosto, – the 15th August – is the title day of an Italian festival dating back to pre-Christian Roman times, but has been transformed into what is today – a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church representing the date of The Assumption – or the day when Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus ascended into heaven.
It is the time when many offices, shops, businesses and industries close and everyone who is able heads to the mountains, countryside, beaches or relatives.
It is best to avoid long distance travel on the motorways at this time because main roads are congested as everyone who can takes their summer holidays to include this day.
Families from the north travel in overloaded cars for holidays to the south and vice versa. Major cities are deserted as the inhabitants head out to the seaside and open spaces.
In holiday areas, villages have bands, music and dancing in the piazzas and care free enjoyment of eating, drinking and social activities abound.
Special Masses are celebrated in Churches, Cathedrals and Chapels throughout the land, roadside grottoes and shrines are bedecked with fresh flowers.
People dress in their best and eat in the houses of friends, relatives and neighbours, whilst far flung family members return and regroup for the holiday period.
However, its more hedonistic origins are in an era long ago.
The traditional month long holiday in September, celebrating an end to the toil of the various summer harvests in Roman times, was brought forward by the Emperor Augustus to the month that bears his name thus creating the Feriae Augusti , or the Festival of Augustus.
Far from being a demure Christian celebration, these were collective rites to honour the Gods, in particular Diana – the Goddess of fertility, ripening crops and hunting.
Slaves, servants and the disenfranchised classes were allowed to participate and the event was marked by feasting, drinking and sexual excess, all reaching their peak on the 15th of the month.
With the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity under the Emperor Constantine, the difficulty of eradicating this pagan festival was resolved by the Early Church with the simple expedient of naming the 15th of August as the date of the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary, thus supplanting one religious occasion by another, and over time the original significance of the date was lost to the majority.
The month long holiday, has over the last millennium shrunk to just a specific day in theory, though many businesses close for at least a week, while others manage to tick over operating barely a skeleton staff, and you may abandon any hope of getting a self employed craftsman to do anything from approx 12th till the 26th of the month.
The sun glow sinks lower, and as it dims and darkens further, lights switch on in town and village centres all along the coasts as the evening entertainment commences.
However, on this evening of the 15th August if you people- watch the happy crowds thronging the Piazzas whilst you are strolling the pavements of Italian holiday areas today – cast your mind back and try to visualise their ancestors celebrating their harvests and good fortune by the flickering torchlight that illuminated the street scenes long ago in the age of the Romans gone by.