Easter is one of Italy’s biggest and most important holidays. Vatican City is a major draw for visitors during Holy Week, but all over Italy there are religious processions and services – some traditional, some not-so-much.
But we’ll get to that in a bit.
For travelers, holidays in Italy can bring up some potential dilemmas. Major attractions can be closed, for instance, and trains operate on holiday schedules. That doesn’t mean you should cancel your trip – it just means you need to know a few things about what Easter is like in Italy before you go.
Easter Sunday is a big deal in Italy, but it doesn’t start there. Holy Week begins the Sunday before, on Palm Sunday, and there are religious services and processions throughout the week leading up to Easter.
Some of the most well-known are the Good Friday processions – including the “Stations of the Cross” in Rome, led by the pope; one in the Sicilian town of Enna, with thousands of white-hooded friars carrying statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary; and the oldest religious procession in Italy in the Abruzzo town of Chieti, also with thousands of hooded brothers and followed by a marching orchestra and choir performing the “Miserere.”
Easter – which is Pasqua in Italian, pronoucned PAHS|kwah – is marked by services in churches throughout the country, as well as a big meal enjoyed at home with family. Traditional dishes eaten at Easter include artichokes, roast lamb, and a sweet holiday bread called “Colomba,” which means “dove” in Italian (it’s supposed to be the shape of a flying dove).
There is, I’m afraid, no Easter Bunny in Italy – but there is chocolate in abundance, particularly in the form of large chocolate eggs that have prizes hidden inside. Some of the eggs are large enough they could be hiding a small child, but I don’t think that’s what they’re designed for.
Easter in the Vatican is, of course, a grand affair, with a huge mass in St. Peter’s Square in the morning (rain or shine!), followed by the Pope’s annual “Urbi et Orbi” speech at noon.
Perhaps the most interesting Easter celebration in Italy – at least that I’ve heard about – is in Florence. A dove-shaped rocket flies out of the Duomo after the services and lands on a wooden cart that’s been arranged in the square, lighting it on fire and setting off the fireworks that adorn it. Yes, Easter can be a somber holiday in Italy, but in Florence it’s a time for explosions, apparently.
The festivities don’t end on Easter Sunday in Italy. The following day is also a national holiday, which is known as Pasquetta (pronounced pahs|KWEH|tah). That literally translates to “little Easter,” but it’s more appropriately known as “Easter Monday.”
There’s an Italian saying, “Natale con i suoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi,” which means “Christmas with your relatives, Easter with who you want.” Easter Sunday is still typically spent with family, but Easter Monday is when Italians – especially younger generations who don’t have kids – hang out with their friends.
Assuming the weather is nice, Pasquetta is an excellent excuse to pack a picnic and head into the country with your pals. Not everyone gets out of town, though, as some cities organize special events or concerts on Easter Monday. There are Pasquetta games, too, such as the Palio dell’Uovo – Palio of the Egg – in Tredozio (including a hard-boiled-egg-eating contest and an egg-themed obstacle course of sorts) and the race in Panciale involving local contestants rolling wheels of cheese around the city walls.
First things first, you should check on the calendar of Italian holidays to see if your trip coincides with any of the Easter celebrations. Then, if it does, you need to decide what to do about that.
Personally, I love seeing places when they’re in the midst of celebrating something – anything – but if you’re not expecting said celebration, it can be headache-inducing. Here’s what I’d suggest if your trip overlaps with Easter in Italy.