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Sicily Festivals: The Feast of St. Agatha

Each year from February 3 - 5, the city of Catania in Sicily hosts a religious festival that celebrates the life and death of its beloved patron saint, known as the Feast of Saint Agatha, or Festa di Sant'Agata. It is one of the largest religious celebrations in the world, and it is truly spectacular to witness!


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Did you know that every city and town in Italy has a patron saint? And did you further know that there is an annual “feast day” to honor each of these saints? This typically includes a procession carrying an icon or relic related to the saint that begins at the church named after the saint, and may also include a festival, fireworks, or other celebrations around the city.


Saint Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, and she has a very special place in the hearts of its people. The virgin saint is also the patron saint of breast cancer patients, rape victims, children and martyrs.


The story of St. Agatha


Agatha was a young girl living Catania, Sicily around the year 251 AD. She had devoted her life to the church, and was therefore a virgin. It is believed that Agatha was martyred for her Christian faith and for refusing to marry the governor or some other influential leader appointed by the Roman government. So basically the standard “if I can’t have you, no one can". But I digress. As punishment, Agatha was imprisoned and then tortured, including having her breasts cut off and then being burned alive on a grill.


Legend says that the next year Mt. Etna experienced a major eruption. Afraid for their lives, local citizens took the white veil that had been used to hold the relics of Agatha’s body and laid it across the path of the eruption. Miraculously, the lava flow stopped! For this reason, the saint is believed to protect eastern Sicily from the eruptions of Mt. Etna, and is commonly invoked in prayer for protection against fires.


The Feast of Saint Agatha


The first day of the celebration begins with a procession of tall, gilded wooden “candelore”, which are carried by groups of men that represent the city’s ancient guilds. This parade also includes an 18th century horse-drawn carriage that was used by the old Catanese Senate and carries local government leaders. The candelore are carried down Via Etnea from Piazza Stesicoro to Piazza del Duomo, where they all end up in front of the cathedral dedicated to Saint Agatha. This is the traditional “wax offering”, where candles are offered to ask for protection from the saint.


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The second day of Festa di Sant’Agata starts out with a special mass. Later in the day people gather in the piazza in front of the cathedral, and all along Via Etnea. Long white ropes are used to create a “lane” down the middle of the street.


Logistical note: I had no idea what to expect when I went for the first time, but luckily ended up right alongside the rope. This had good and bad effects.


Pro: We had great views when the procession came past!


Con: I had to fight people off from getting in front of us all night and was “accidentally” elbowed in the stomach a few times. Everyone was so close together that there were times I could have picked up my feet and been held off the ground from being wedged against the people on either side! It reminded me a little of the time I got trapped in a mosh pit at a Green Day concert back in the late 90’s.


Around dusk, fireworks at the Piazza del Duomo signal the start of a 24-hour procession of the relics of Saint Agatha. The relics are brought out of the cathedral and carried on a specific route through the city on a large wooden platform with a silver canopy.


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The already heavy platform also has several priests standing on it, rows of large candles, and is decorated with white flowers to symbolize purity. It travels along the route by men carrying it on long wooden side boards, while others pull it with ropes. I can only imagine the tremendous effort this takes, and how exhausting it must be to do this for 24 hours straight! The canopy stops every so often so people can pass candles and flowers to be placed on it, or have personal items blessed by the priests.


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Thousands of participants called “devotees” follow along with the procession, creating a virtual river of white robes. Some of the men carry huge lit candles along the street in front of the procession, walking or even running with them on their shoulders and backs. These candles are ridiculously big and dripping with hot wax! So much wax drips onto the streets that they are covered in sawdust before the festivities begin. The candles are set down a certain distance in front of the procession to create a lit pathway. While they wait for the procession, the devotees gather in circles to pray.


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During the the procession you can hear men shouting, “Cittadini! Tutti devoti tutti! Viva Sant'Agata!” (Citizens! All devout! Long live Saint Agatha!)


The procession lasts all night long, going past sites related to the saint’s torture, imprisonment and death. One of the most spectacular parts of the procession happens in the early morning on the final day, when it is pulled uphill on Via Antonino di Sangiuliano from Via Etnea to Via Crociferi. The canopy is pulled at a RUN by several thousand devotees working together, carrying the canopy, pulling the ropes, or even physically pushing the men who carry the weight. Crowds line both sides of the street, cheering and applauding in encouragement.


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After this, the canopy turns down Via Crociferi where it stops in front of the Church of San Benedetto for an offering of flowers by the Benedictine nuns. This is truly special because the cloistered nuns only come out of the convent on this occasion, to present the flowers and intone a song in the silence of the early morning. Finally the devotees carry the canopy with the relics of St. Agatha back to the cathedral that is dedicated to her, where they stay until the next year’s celebration.


What to eat at the Festa di Sant'Agata


While there is more delicious food in Sicily that you can shake a piece of pasta at, some of the most special treats are centered around celebrations. Here are a few of the foods associated with Saint Agatha.


Olivette di Sant’Agata

The legend surrounding the origin of this sweet treat has several versions. One says that while Agatha was being led to court for her trial she stopped to tie her sandal, and when she touched the ground an olive tree grew and bore olives immediately. Another version says that Agatha was attempting to escape capture by the Romans when she bent to tie her sandal. In this version an olive tree also grew, but it grew so large and bountiful that it hid her from the guards, if only temporarily. A final version claims that she came across a barren olive tree and when she touched it, it immediately began to produce olives.


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Satisfy your Sicilian sweet tooth!

Regardless of the origin, this olive-shaped sweet has been associated with the saint, going back many hundreds of years. The “olivette” are made out of almost paste, sugar, liqueur, and green coloring. Traditionally they are made “plain” with just these ingredients, but I’ve also seen them with chocolate inside and even covered in chocolate. In all cases, they are delicious and will more than satisfy your Sicilian sweet tooth!


Minni di Sant’Agata

The origin of this miniature cake is pretty obvious, considering that Agatha’s breasts were cut off during her torture and martyrdom. It goes by so many names I never know how to order it. Do I order in English, Italian, or attempt Sicilian? Getting it wrong could be awkward, to say the least. I’ve heard it called “Cassatella di Sant’Agata", “Cassatina Siciliana”, and in Sicilian dialect “Minnuzzi di Sant’Àjita" (Saint Agatha's breasts) or "Minni di Virgini” (virgin’s breasts). As I write this I anticipate numerous messages from my Sicilian friends politely correcting me, or laughing at me. Either one I’ll take with love.


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The famous mini cakes dedicated to Saint Agatha!

This little piece of heaven is made with a layer of sponge cake soaked in a special liqueur, then topped with sweet ricotta cream and mini chocolate chips (similar to cannoli filling). Sometimes there are also pieces of candied fruit inside. The entire thing is covered first with a layer of marzipan, then white icing. Finally, a candied cherry is placed on the top.


I have to say, this tiny cake is my absolute favorite thing to eat in all of Sicily. Yep, it’s better than cannoli. I just wish I could eat more of it! You would think that maybe eating two would be the standard, for obvious reasons. However, considering how sweet it is, you might just go into a diabetic coma if you attempt it. I dare say one is enough for anyone, and some people may not even be able to handle that.


Anything else made in the shape of breasts

These are the two most well-known foods associated with Saint Agatha, but during this time of year, and most other times of the year as well, you can find a variety of pastries, cookies and other sweets made in this shape, to honor the saint. Don’t be shy, take your pick. Sicily is the land of sweets and in my opinion, has the best in all of Italy.

Would you like to experience the Festa di Sant’Agata? Here’s how to do it!

 

Since the festival is in Catania you should fly into Catania Fontanarossa Airport, unless you're already living in or visiting Sicily. If you’re traveling outside of Catania a car is nice, but I would not recommend renting a car just to get around Catania…as the traffic is crazy, parking is hard to find, and there are a lot of one-way streets. One wrong turn can cost you 10 minutes or more to get back on track! If you do rent a car, make sure you communicate with your hotel or apartment host to find out the best place to park.

If you are only staying in the Catania area, you can take a taxi or use public transportation to get from the airport into the city center. Taxis are usually lined up right in front of the terminal and the Alibus picks up between terminal A and terminal C (there is no terminal B, don’t ask me why). See this link for more information.


I highly recommend staying in the historic center of Catania, along Via Etnea if possible. The best case scenario is to find a hotel or apartment with a balcony overlooking Via Etnea between Piazza del Duomo and Bellini Park (Villa Bellini on google maps). This will give you a direct view of the longest part of the procession route. Staying on Via Etnea is also nice because the procession travels very slowly along the route. That way if you don't want to hang out on the street all night, you can go to your room to take breaks (or a nap!) and still have a view of when the procession is getting close to you.


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The view from our balcony!

If you stay along this section of Via Etna, the procession should pass you twice, once in the evening and again the next morning. For example, we went to sleep around 1:00 am after the procession passed us, and when we woke up the next morning around 7:00 it was just coming back the other direction.


Significant sites related to Saint Agatha


Basilica Cattedrale di Sant’Agata - cathedral in Piazza del Duomo named after the saint.

Piazza Stesicoro - the site where Agatha was “grilled” on a bed of hot irons.

Chiesa San Biagio in Sant'Agata alla Fornace - church at Piazza Stesicoro, dedicated to Saint Agatha’s torture and death in the fire.

Church of Sant'Agata al Carcere - church dedicated to Saint Agatha’s imprisonment. You can go into the cell where she was held, in the back right corner inside the church.

Church of Sant'Agata la Vetere - Catania’s oldest cathedral and site where Agatha’s breast cutting occurred. 13 years after the her death, a shrine was consecrated here in dedication to her martyrdom.



 

This was one of the most special experiences we had while living in Sicily. To be part of something where we felt truly immersed in the community and culture there was something I’ll never forget. I hope you can experience it for yourself one day too!


If you enjoyed reading this, drop me a comment!


Check out some of the other articles on my European Destinations page or read more about my Sicilian adventures below!


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