Last night was the final day of the Festival of St. Agata (from 3rd-5th February), Sicily's largest religious procession that for 5 centuries have been held in St. Agata's honor. We arrived in Catania after ten in the evening to be pleasantly surprised. There was no traffic! Imagine that, Catania with no traffic. We also found a parking place! Then, along with Salvo and Vita, Antonello and I made our way to find St.Agatha.
A few blocks into the city we found ourselves engulfed in a huge herd of people. Amazing! There were vendors selling long devotion candles around every corner, and devotees running around in their white over dresses. For us, this was the best time to see Catania. The night was alive. We have been there for the New Year’s celebrations, but this was nothing in comparison. To see the respect these towns’ people have for their patron saint was amazing. We walked, and walked down streets we had never seen; explored alleys that were all lit up and decorated, and popped into little food stores to grab a bite to eat to keep us going. By the time we left, around the hour of two in the morning, the crowds were still just as strong.
Her remains are transported in an ornate silver reliquary bust, decorated with priceless jewels and she wears the crown of Richard the 'Lionheart'.
Here is “Luminaria” or candle procession where the gilded silver bust of St. Agatha is placed on a silver plated wooden bier and is lead through the town amid shouts of “Cittadini, viva Sant’Agata!” (Citizens, long live St. Agatha!). She is pulled by “I devoti”, those devoted to her.
Here is when the procession becomes a passionate "competition" of resistance of the candlemases. Men of all ages prove their devotion by carrying huge candles before her...
People of the town purchase long candles, light them, and say their prayers. They then offer it to her as she passes by through the streets of Catania.
Here is a picture of the “cannalore” that are paraded through the streets. The “cannalore” are gigantic wooden candelabra decorated with statues of angels and saints, scenes from the martyrdom of the patron saint.
You can see happiness on the faces of the "cittadini" who have spent two intense days with their Saint, but you can also see tiredness and the longing for sleep. However, with their remaining voice they still shout: "Cittadini, viva St. Agata".
Saw dust covered the streets to prevent slipping from all the candle wax...
Yum... It is afterall "Martedi Grasso", Fat Tuesday!
A final observation concerns a gastronomic tradition peculiar to Catania, the “olivette” of St. Agatha. These cakes made of green marzipan and shaped like olives; evoke the memory of another miracle connected to the martyrdom of the saint. At the time of her execution, Agatha bent down to tie her shoe and upon that spot suddenly sprouted a wild olive tree, whose fruit was believed to have miraculous properties and was kept by the people of Catania out of devotion. (I actually didn't see any, so I had to look for a picture..)
In the 'pasticceria's you can also buy the small ricotta and icing sugar cup-cakes with a cherry on top, called St. Agata's titties ('i minni i St. Agata', in dialect)..
It is said that during the persecution of Emperor Decius in 251, the invading Roman tyrant in Sicily, Quintianus, conceived a passion for Agatha, who was of noble birth and great beauty. And when he could not make her consent to his desires, as Agatha was determined to live faithful to Christ, he had her arrested as a Christian. Then, the Praetor gave her the choice of sacrificing to the gods or undergoing torture. When beatings with white-hot metal failed to shake her constancy to Christ, he ordered her breasts cut off. It is said that after she had been returned to prison, the Apostle Peter appeared to her and healed her wounds.The following day she was subjected to new tortures, but an earthquake from Mount Etna shook the town and terrified the people. Whereupon the Praetor, fearing a riot, ordered Agatha to be returned quietly to prison. There, in the town of Catania, she died in “peace”, on February 5th, and her body was taken and buried by Christians.
To this day the saint protects the city and its inhabitants, who turn to her in their moments of need. This long history with Agatha began on February 1st, 252 AD, just a year after the martyrdom of the Christian virgin when a violent eruption was miraculously stopped by holding up a veil that had belonged to the unfortunate girl. According to legend, the veil stopped the flow of lava and mysteriously changed color. Ever since that fateful day, the people of Catania have turned to the protective veil in order to face the menace of Etna. In 1444 and again during the catastrophic eruption of March 8th, 1669 the veil appeared to stop the threatening flow of lava. In 1743, St. Agatha is believed to have saved the people of Catania from the plague, which decimated the nearby population of Messina. In 1886 the saint’s veil, carried in procession, stopped lava yet again at the nearby town of Nicolosi.