in Cantania

Itís a three-day celebration of cult, devotion, folklore, and tradition that stand almost alone in the world, which happens every year from February 3rd to February 5th.

It is believed that only the Holy Week in Seville, and the corpus Domini ceremony in Cuzco, Peru, may be compared in terms of popularity, to the festivities that since 5 centuries have been held in St. Agatha's honour. For three days, almost a million Catanians and tourists swarm in the streets. During those intense days, Catania turns into one and only crowd marching behind the Patron. St. Agatha is Christian martyr, born in Catania, who resisted the advances of a Roman prefect sent to govern Sicily. After brutal torture she was sent to the stake, but as the fire was lighted a great earthquake occurred, and the crowd demanded her release. She was then led away to prison, where she died around the 6th century.

The 4th and 5th of February stand out among the three days of festivities, when St. Agatha passes through the eight neighbourhoods on her silver carriage (Catanians call it, specifically, "fercolo" or, more commonly, "vara").

The first day of celebration, the 3rd of February, develops itself into three distinct moments: the long and solemn Midday procession for "the offering of wax" to which civil, religious and militar authorities all attend bearing the standards of the City, the Province, and the University. From the Cathedral, the procession cuts through two lines of a huge crowd. Eleven "candelore" (large candle shaped structures), symbolizing the guilds, and two carriages belonging to the old Catanian Senate, bring up the rear. In the afternoon, at 3.00 PM, St. Agatha's international cross-country race takes place through the old and new streets of the town-centre. Finally, in the evening, later than 8.00 PM, beautiful fireworks are on display.

The following night is spent sleepless by thousands of Catanians, who meet at dawn at the Cathedral in a strongly emotional atmosphere, for a first meeting with "their" Saint. St. Agatha's image, waving amidst the crowd, is firstly brought to the high altar, than on the "vara" by devotees wearing the "sacco" (a white alb): its bust, covered up with jewels bestowed by sovereigns and celebrities (there also is a cross which was donated by composer Vincenzo Bellini), rises and falls amidst a cheering crowd.


The carriage carrying the reliquary-bust and the finely wrought silver casket containing other relics, starts covering the route crossing through the city center to the place where St. Agatha supposedly was born. The route continues through places that are extremely dear to Catanians; in these ancient sites, Agatha was imprisoned and tortured, dying in atrocious sufferings. There, another spectacular moment: thousands of devotees run and drag the heavy carriage along a slope (salita dei Cappuccini), stopping once halfway to pay homage to the Sacred Gaol.

In the evening, the run takes place downtown where the festivities are felt in a different way: all private houses are open and well-lit, coffee-houses are crowded all night long. Music is heard everywhere, streets are crowded with stalls and booths where all sorts of sweets are sold, and mobile grids where horse meat is roasted. Balconies are well-lit, kiosks are strewn with flowers and embellished with St. Agatha's effigy, while shop-windows display artistic reproductions of the "candelore". Almost at dawn, magnificent fireworks welcome the Saint on her way back to the Cathedral.   

Just a few hours of sleep: in the late morning of the 5th. of February (the climax of the festivity), a Pontifical Mass is celebrated by a specially invited prelate.

The Saint's image travels along another route, through the old town centre: the carriage proceeds slowly along the elegant via Etnea.  

The eleven, richly adorned "candelore" lead the procession, being followed by 700 devotees holding torches: then the white river of devotees follows. They all drag the "vara" and sing the praises of the Patron ("We are all, all devotees. Citizens, long live St. Agatha!"). The City bell tolls, announcing the Mayor's homage to the Saint. In the evening, people crowd together again to attend further fireworks (also known as "the fireworks of the evening of three"); soon after the crowd follows and escorts the "candelore" in an "endurance race" along the slope of "salita di San Giuliano".  

Time goes by, and the setting sun gives way to the night: St. Agatha patiently awaits for the end of the contest, at the crossing of via Etnea and via di San Giuliano: it's the "final pull", that should bring the festivity to an end, with an enthusiastic applause of relief. The race is an event mostly reserved to young people: strong arms and legs are needed to drag the several tons of the "vara". Taking part to the race is a mark of love and devotion that should non be underrated: doing it in "one go" allows to draw favorable auspices for the year, since the real New Years Day in Catania falls on the 5th of February; once, contracts and deeds were actually started or delivered on such a date.


Ten huge "candelore" and a smaller one, now lead the procession. A candelabrum in memory of cardinal Ventimiglia comes first, being followed by the "candelora" (decorated with four griffins at the basement) offered by the inhabitants of San Giuseppe La Rena. Then the candelabrum of the Floriculturists follows, in Gothic style, portraying statues of Catanian martyrs and bishops: once it was toped with a bouquet of flowers, now replaced by a bow.

The "candelora " representing Fishmongers comes next: it is in rococo style and bears votive offerings and a statue of St. Francis of Paola, patron of fishermen and sailors. The other "candelore" represent Greengrocers (it bears a bust of St. Agatha), Butchers (it displays a small bouquet of flowers), Makers of Pasta (an eighteenth-century candlestick), Grocers (in liberty style, decorated with characteristic caryatids at the basement), Bakers (the heaviest, carried by twelve people, instead of eight, and displaying human-height statues of angels), Vintners (carried by ten people and displaying four lions and griffins at the basement).

 The cult of St. Agatha is non strictly Catanian: the Saint is venerated all over the world (Malta, Spain, Germany, France, Greece). St. Agatha is the Patron of 44 Italian municipalities, and 14 of them bear her name.
The whole province of Catania is rich with works of art dedicated to such a cult: the most famous of them is in Nicolosi, where Cardinal Dusmet saved the city using the veil of St. Agatha to stop lava flows.