Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What is Ferragosto?

What is Ferragosto?
Ferragosto is a day off from work, a day to relax, a day of food, sun, and fun. Ferragosto is a great time to spend with family and friends, a day when most retail, commercial, industrial and government offices are closed. Ferragosto is religious processions, and many towns celebrate Ferragosto with communal fairs, fireworks and dancing in the square.
A visit to Italy during the period stretching from the 25th of July through to the 10th of September can be of extremes. The cities are empty, it only takes about 15 minutes to drive from one side of Milan to the other, and millions of people flood to the cities along the coast, increasing the local population ten times. On the 15th of August, Ferragosto, whether in the city or along the sea, the streets are empty until well into the afternoon. Most Catholics will tell you that Ferragosto is the celebration of the Assumption, when the Madonna was allowed into heaven, but the origins of Ferragosto are deeply rooted in the Roman Empire.

For hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, the end of the summer agricultural season was celebrated with 15 days of feasts, elaborate parties and orgies. All members of the Roman Empire, including the citizens and slaves, participated in the festivities. Octavian, heir of Julius Caesar, became Augustus, or the one consecrated and the sixth month of the Roman calendar took his name.
Augustus had been involved in a long battle with Mark Anthony. Mark Anthony had moved to Egypt, married Cleopatra, and had established a small kingdom around Alexandria. In a great naval battle Mark Anthony’s navy was defeated. Shortly thereafter Augustus’ son-in-law entered Egypt and made it one of Rome’s provinces.

On August 13, 29 B.C. Octavian, emperor of Rome known as Augustus, celebrated the triumph related to the conquest of Egypt. The memory of that day survives in the Italian holiday of Ferragosto (Feriae Augusti), now celebrated on the 15th. Over the centuries that followed, the Catholic Church became more powerful and slowly attempted to eliminate pagan and social holidays making the church’s traditions the centre of everyday life. Ferragosto was too important to simply eliminate, and following the recognition of Catholicism as the official religion of Rome in 386 B.C. it was decided that Ferragosto would be celebrated as the day of the belief that the Virgin Mary was taken into heaven.
A packed Ferragosto beach

In the 1930s, Mussolini made Ferragosto a national holiday and initiated the process of vacationing in August. Italian workers earn 6 weeks paid vacation for every year worked. In the 1960s, the Italian economy was in the full swing of its industrial revolution. The make-up of the workforce had moved from being mainly agricultural to heavy industry. This created a serious problem during the hot month of August. The working conditions in the plants were unbearable because of the heat. The Unions and Industrialists got together and decided to close the plants for 3 weeks during the hottest days of August, and required the employees to use part of their paid vacation for this purpose.

Although changes in the Italian economy from industrial to high-tech and the implementation of air conditioning have made the necessity to close the plants obsolete, the tradition has persisted. Presently companies rarely shut-down for more than the 4 days surrounding Ferragosto, and the vacations are now spread out from June through late September, however they do run on limited personnel, as most Italians prefer vacationing in August.
A congested motorway toll booth at the end of Ferragosto!
The Romans used to celebrate these August holidays with horse races, a tradition that’s still kept alive by the many festivals organized throughout the country. In Tuscany, for instance, the second Palio of Siena takes place on the 16th of August.

The most typical way to celebrate Ferragosto is to go on a “gita fuori porta“, literally a “day trip to some place outside the city gates”. Most people go to the beach, or have a picnic in the woods on the nearest mountain, or in the countryside.

One of the great things about Ferragosto if you’re a tourist is that if you get to the museums early, before 9am, you will be able to go through without masses of people or queues. Why? Because all the Italians sleep in!

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