Easter is observed in Italy with a week of processions and rituals, followed by feasting and celebrations on Sunday and the holiday of La Pasquetta, or little Easter, on Monday. Solemn processions often include special statues of the Madonna and Christ that are carried through town by people dressed in costume. This is especially true in southern Italy and on the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, where the processions are often very dramatic.
Eggs feature in Easter foods and celebrations. Hard-boiled eggs are often taken to Saturday mass to be blessed or baked into special Easter breads. Large chocolate eggs with a little toy inside are the main candy and you’ll see them in stores and bars starting a few weeks before Easter. Colomba, a dove-shaped bread with candied fruit and almonds is also popular.
Settimana Santa starts in most places on Palm Sunday, although in some places processions and rituals start even earlier, often the Thursday or Friday prior to Palm Sunday.
The biggest Palm Sunday mass is the one led by the Pope in Saint Peter’s Square that also includes the blessing of the Palms and a procession. Although attending the mass is free, it’s usually very crowded and you need a ticket.
Holy Thursday is an evening of special masses and often processions.
Good Friday is observed in most places in Italy with the Via Crucis, the ritual of the 14 Stations of the Cross. In many places processions include people in costume acting out events at each station. These can be very dramatic. The Good Friday procession in Enna, Sicily, includes more than 2,000 friars dressed in ancient costumes. Trapani, also in Sicily, has a 24-hour long procession called the Misteri di Trapani.
In Mercatello sul Metauro, in Le Marche’s Metauro Valley there’s an unusual procession with an 11th century life-like statue of Christ, with fully articulated joints that’s covered in a leather skin. It’s kept hidden away in a special church and brought out on Thursday evening, nailed to the cross, and covered with a cloth. On Friday the Christ is removed from the cross and carried in a coffin in a very moving procession.
The biggest Via Crucis takes place by the Colosseum in Rome on the night of Good Friday, usually starting at 9:15. A huge cross with burning torches lights the sky. During the procession, the stations of the cross are described in several languages. This is another very crowded, free event but also very moving. The stations of the Via Crucis were placed at the Colosseum in 1744 by Pope Benedict XIV and the bronze cross was added in 2000, the Jubilee year.
Top places to see processions are usually in southern Italy, on the island of Sicily or Sardinia, or inland. The town of Sulmona, in central Italy’s Abruzzo region, has several good Easter week processions and events.
Easter vigil mass is held Saturday night before Easter and a mass is held on Easter morning as well. At the Saturday mass, people often bring hard-boiled eggs to be blessed.
Easter Holy Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica is another popular and very crowded event. Admission is free but you’ll need to get a ticket and you should arrive early. At noon the Pope gives the Easter message and blessing in the central loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Check the times of Papal events on this list of Papal Events and or see how to get tickets.
Another popular event is held in Florence, the Scoppio del Carro, explosion of the cart. A huge, decorated ox cart filled with fireworks is pulled through Florence until it reaches the duomo. Following mass, the Archbishop sends a dove-shaped rocket into the cart, igniting the fireworks. This spectacular display is followed by a parade with people in medieval costumes.
Easter is a day of celebrating and includes a big meal with family or friends, often including lamb and artichokes. Many places often have a traditional Easter breakfast as well, since Easter represents the end of Lent, that may include coratella, a dish made from lamb heart, lungs, and liver. Many places also have a special Easter bread, such as this Torta Brusca in Le Marche.
La Pasquetta, Easter Monday
The day after Easter, La Pasquetta, is also a national holiday in Italy and a day when Italians generally escape from the cities and towns to the countryside. The day often includes a picnic but it may also include some fun activities, concerts, or unusual games, often involving eggs, such as Punta e Cul. Expect many stores and businesses to be closed on Easter Monday but most tourist sites are open, sometimes even those that are normally closed on Mondays. One unusual event, often held in the walled town of Panicale, in Umbria, is a cheese-rolling contest around the town walls.