Pasqua is the beautiful Italian word for Easter. I know what you’re thinking: Today is St. Patricks Day, not Easter. However, as much as we Americans love to celebrate with our Irish brethren (I just spent last weekend marveling over the Chicago River dyed green for the occasion), Italians generally don’t make a big deal of the event. The lack of Italian revelry on this date is actually a bit surprising. First of all, since when do Italians pass up a reason to celebrate with friends and family? Second, rumor has it that St. Patrick himself was not Irish, but Italian. Born in the 4th century AD, apparently he was the son of Romans living in Britain in charge of the colonies of that area. I’m not kidding, google it!
While St. Patrick’s Day may be a missed opportunity for Italians, Easter is a big deal and it comes early this year, in just 10 days. So what do Italians do to celebrate this joyous event? Of course, if you’re anywhere near Rome this time of year, you couldn’t miss the crowds of pilgrims that travel there for Holy Week. But what are folks doing to mark the occasion in Florence and elsewhere in Tuscany?
First of all, Easter in Italy is not just one Sunday of early morning bunnies, baskets and egg hunts, family trips to church and crowded brunches. The festivities begin on the Thursday before Easter and stretch through Monday. It begins with a wide range of religious and historic parades and other events, and ends with colorfully wrapped chocolate eggs containing surprises, and picnics in the countryside.
Holy Thursday has churches all over Italy opening their doors to welcome visitors to pay their respects to elaborately-decorated altars. If you are lucky enough to be in Tuscany this time of year, the question will be which beautiful old church(es) to visit.
On Good Friday and the Saturday before Easter, almost anywhere in Tuscany, you will find religious parades passing through the center of town. I’ve read about one that sounds particularly interesting, partly because it takes place in the tiny town of Grassina in the suburbs of Florence. This is about a 2-minute drive from the house I occupied with my family for our 3-month stay a couple of years ago. Too bad I wasn’t there for Easter. On the night of Good Friday, starting at 9pm, over 500 locals join together to reenact the Passion of Christ, set to music and with narration of the various scenes, heading toward the climax of the Crucifixion on a nearby hill. It sounds like a somber and powerful event.
And finally we come to Easter Sunday and the famous Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart) in Florence. Dating back to the Middle Ages, this fiery event features an elaborate cart pulled by oxen through the streets of Florence, culminating with an explosion of fireworks in the piazza right outside of the Duomo, which is the Catholic cathedral of Florence. The ritual is quite complicated in its execution, and is seen as a sign of luck for the coming year if pulled off successfully. Florentines watch and hope and pray.
The story behind the explosion of the cart, part history and part legend, is interesting. A young Florentine named Pazzino is said to have taken part in the first Crusade to the Holy Land in 1099, where he was first to scale the walls of Jerusalem and raise the Christian banner. He returned home with 3 flints that he received for his courage. On Easter Sunday, a priest rubs the flints together until they spark, and uses the spark to light the Easter candle, which is used to light the coals hidden within the cart. Then the procession begins. When the cart reaches the Duomo, the Archbishop of Florence lights a dove-shaped rocket that represents the Holy Spirit, which flies on a wire from the cathedral’s altar to the cart outside. The cart, rigged with an arsenal of fireworks, explodes spectacularly with a display of fireworks to the cheers of the crowd. Wow!
If after all of that, you feel that you need a break, the Italians agree. The Pasquetta holiday is the Monday after Easter, when Italians spend a leisurely day with family, perhaps enjoying a picnic of pecorino cheese, bread, olives and red wine. Sounds good to me.
And finally, let’s get back to the chocolate eggs I mentioned. Our good friend Antonella who hails from Rome was the first to enlighten us on this wonderful gift-giving tradition. Leading up to Easter, stores are filled with colorfully-wrapped chocolate eggs that each contain a small surprise (sorpressa) for the recipient. Across the country, you’ll see these beautiful eggs in all sizes grace the store windows. Typically for children they contain a small toy or trinket. But chocolatiers can make custom eggs with expensive gifts such as jewelry or even keys to a new car.
But if you are a true Italian foodie like Antonella, you make your own chocolate eggs, complete with small toy inside. The process as she describes it sounds much easier than it probably is. After all, she is a chef— check out her website Eating In Style and, if you are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, try one of her cooking classes sometime. She’s amazingly talented. I, on the other hand, should stick to store-bought treats.