Easter traditions, food and more – Easter in Italy

Italian Easter will be an unusual one this year, with the country in lockdown. It will be characterised not by church visits or big family lunches, but by quiet meals at home. On Easter Sunday, Andrea Bocelli is set to perform live in the empty Duomo of Milan.

However, even in these strange circumstances, the passion for Italian traditions lives on. How do Italians across the country celebrate Easter?

Italian Easter: how do people celebrate?

The Pope celebrating the Easter Sunday mass in an unusually empty St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican Media photo)

In this most Catholic of countries, it’s no surprise that the church plays an important part during Easter in Italy. There are church services and processions throughout Holy Week. Some of the most notable include Palm Sunday masses, when worshippers receive palm leaves and olive branches to take home, and Good Friday, which frequently involves a Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) procession. Worshippers stop along each “station” (image of Christ) to pray. In Rome, the Pope leads the Via Crucis around the Colosseum. Easter celebrations culminate on Easter Sunday with another mass, the most important of which is of course led by the Pope from St Peter’s Basilica.

Aside from religion, what truly defines an Italian Easter is a family meal. Italians enjoy spending time with extended family, and catching up over a leisurely lunch. The family time continues on Easter Monday, known as “Pasquetta” (“Little Easter), which Italians typically celebrate by going to the countryside, the beach or a park. It’s a chance to walk off Sunday’s lunch, before eating another hearty meal!

Italian food: what do Italians eat Easter?

Colomba, a traditional Easter dessert

What you eat for Italian Easter depends on where you are – there are many regional variations. The general rule is that lunch on Easter Sunday is the main meal. It’s always a family affair, and longer than the typical Sunday lunch. Lamb is a popular main course, along with other meat dishes, and many Italian families tuck into a lasagna. Artichokes are a traditional side dish – braised, fried or stuffed.

Dessert certainly doesn’t disappoint. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy Easter in Italy, you can sample colomba (a dove-shaped cake with candied citrus peel and almonds), pastiera napoletana (cake filled with ricotta and orange flower water), or of course a chocolate Easter egg. Italian Easter eggs tend to be beautifully wrapped, and generally contain a “surprise” – a toy for children, or something like a keyring or an item of jewelry for adults.

Unusual Italian traditions at Easter

“Danza dei Diavoli in Prizzi, Sicily”
(Cgcprod di Wikipedia in italiano, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81465905)

Just as each region in Italy has its own special cuisine, there’s also a wide range of unusual Italian traditions. Here are some of the most fascinating Italian Easter traditions:

  • The Explosion of the Cart (Florence) – Witnessing this special Italian Easter celebration is a must if you’re in Florence. On Easter Sunday, crowds gather in front of the Duomo to watch as a huge cart, packed full of fireworks and other explosives, is lit and left to explode. The dazzling pyrotechnical display lasts for around 20 minutes, accompanied by the bell ringing from Giotto’s campanile.
  • The Dance of the Devils (Prizzi, Sicily) – On Easter Sunday, Death (in yellow robes) and the Devil (in red) prowl the streets looking for victims. They attempt to interfere with a religious ceremony in the piazza, until they’re defeated by angels, forced to surrender and bow down to statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary. This theatrical ritual was originally a pagan ceremony, until it was adapted to incorporate the story of the Resurrection.
  • The Rolling of the Cheese (towns in various regions of Italy, including Umbria and Tuscany) – A traditional game on Pasquetta (Easter Monday). The town gathers to watch as a few competitors try to roll a wheel of well-seasoned cheese such as Parmesan or Pecorino. The winner is whoever wheels the cheese the furthest!

Read more: Roll That Cheese! Its Little Easter in Italy (New York Times)