By: Katherine Freedman
Ferragosto is a celebration all about relaxing, eating, and soaking up rays. The only downside of is that it’s only celebrated in Italy! Observed on August 15th, nowadays Ferragosto is a time when Italians take brief vacations at the beach and enjoy big meals. But it wasn’t always about popping the limoncello and sunbathing; the holiday has a history that dates all the way back to Ancient Rome.
Ferragosto has features of both the ancient and Christian worlds. First proclaimed by Emperor Augustus in 18 BC, the festival, then called “Feriae Augusti,” lasted the entire month of August. It was a time when people could relax after having completed the hard physical labor of the harvest. The Romans celebrated the gods of agriculture, and those linked with the change of seasons. Later on, Christians started celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15, which is why the holiday is now celebrated on that date.
La Notte di San Lorenzo, or “The Night of San Lorenzo,” falls on August 10th, and was considered part of Ferragosto back when it lasted all of August. On this evening, Italians look up at the sky to see shooting stars; more shooting stars fall than on any other night of the year (in case you have your doubts, this is scientifically proven!) This holiday celebrates the martyrdom of San Lorenzo, who died on August 10th. The stars represent the tears that fell down his face during his execution, and it is said these stars create an atmosphere of magic and hope; Italians believe that this is a night when wishes will come true.
These days, Ferragosto marks the beginning of Italy’s vacation period. If you’re in an Italian city during the second half of August, you’ll likely find that many restaurants and shops are closed for vacation, or chiuso per ferie. While the cities are deserted, the coasts are crowded with Italians celebrating Ferragosto.
The U.S. has already borrowed many elements of Italy’s culture, from opera to pizza to Nutella – so what’s one more cultural steal? It’s time we take a hint from the Italians, and start celebrating what just might be the best holiday ever.
Giovanni Pascoli, the famous Italian poet, wrote a poem entitled “The Tenth of August,” about the Night of San Lorenzo, which coincidentally falls on the same day as his father’s death.
di Giovanni Pascoli
San Lorenzo, io lo so perché tanto
di stelle per l’aria tranquilla
arde e cade, perché si gran pianto
nel concavo cielo sfavilla.
Ritornava una rondine al tetto:
l’uccisero: cadde tra i spini;
ella aveva nel becco un insetto:
la cena dei suoi rondinini.
Ora è là, come in croce, che tende
quel verme a quel cielo lontano;
e il suo nido è nell’ombra, che attende,
che pigola sempre più piano.
Anche un uomo tornava al suo nido:
l’uccisero: disse: Perdono;
e restò negli aperti occhi un grido:
portava due bambole in dono.
Ora là, nella casa romita,
lo aspettano, aspettano in vano:
egli immobile, attonito, addita
le bambole al cielo lontano.
E tu, Cielo, dall’alto dei mondi
sereni, infinito, immortale,
oh! d’un pianto di stelle lo inondi
quest’atomo opaco del Male!
The 10th of August
San Lorenzo, I know why so many stars are burning and falling in the tranquil air, why such great weeping sparkles in the concave sky.
A swallow was returning to its home: they killed her: she fell amongst thorns; in her beak she had an insect: the dinner for her little swallows.
Now she is there, as if on a cross, holding out that worm to the distant heaven; and her nest is in the shadow waiting, chirping ever more softly.
A man was also going back to his nest: they killed him: he said: ‘Forgiveness’; and in his open eyes there remained a scream: he was bringing two dolls as presents …
Now there, in the remote house, they are waiting for him, waiting in vain: he, motionless, astonished, points the dolls to the distant heaven.
And you, Heaven, from the heights of serene worlds, infinite, immortal, oh! with a weeping of stars you flood this atom, opaque with Evil.