If you’re spending any of your August vacations in Sicily, chances are you’ll coincide with one of the biggest Italian public holidays of the calendar year – Ferragosto. It’s a holiday that we’ve touched on here before at My Bella Vita, but this time we’d like to give you a little bit more of the history behind it – as well as how to make the most of it like the Sicilians do!

Ferragosto falls on August 15th every year, and is actually an amalgam of three different holidays; Ancient Roman, Christian and political. In Roman times, August 13th was set aside as a feast day to worship the goddess Diana. However, when the emperor Augustus came to power, he decreed that there should be a national holiday from the day after the festival of Diana through to the end of the month. This was in order to celebrate the end of the harvest and give the poor farmers a well-earned rest – and probably sowed the seeds of the now-diffuse practice of taking the majority of August off.

Once the Romans had gone, the Christians nominated August 15th as the date on which the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary should be celebrated. Maybe the reason it hasn’t stuck in people’s minds is that there has been great theological debate over the years as to whether Mary’s body really was taken up to Heaven. However it became official dogma in 1950, so while you’re celebrating Ferragosto, you could also spare a thought for the Virgin Mary, if you’re so inclined!

Ferragosto in its current form came about in the 1920s, when Italy was under Fascist rule. The government wanted to promote train travel – which was still in reasonable infancy – to the masses. They therefore slashed train fares to the mountains and to the sea from the 13th to the 15th of August. Workers duly took their (now affordable) holidays over these three days, and the modern tradition was born.

Many people in Sicily still take the train to the beach on August 14th, along with barbecues, picnic hampers and tents. They set up camp on the sand overnight, turning the beaches into one big, joyous campsite, rammed with people who eat quantities of barbecued food and splash into the sea at midnight to mark the start of Ferragosto proper on the 15th. They then dance through to the early hours of the morning before returning home around lunchtime the same way that they arrived – by train.

You don’t have to camp to take part in Ferragosto, though – not unless you want to. Along with the campers, there are plenty of others who barbecue at home, arrive by car for their midnight dip, and who return home to comfortable beds when they’ve had enough. Be aware, however, that if this is the way you want to do it you will need to leave plenty of time to get to your chosen beach, as the roads will be packed with revellers and parking spots will be at a premium.

However you choose to celebrate Ferragosto in Sicily, though, what’s for certain is that it’s a holiday that’s always a whole load of fun. Buon Ferragosto a tutti!

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Image Credit: Italy-Taormina – Creative Commons by gnuckx (3199855925) by gnuckxItaly-Taormina – Creative Commons by gnuckx Uploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.