Easter in Sicilia
A Personal Experience
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D
uring Holy week in April 1996, I traveled to Sicilia and after spending the day in Palermo visiting some friends, I immediately proceeded to the town of Enna which is a provincial capital in the center of the island, at an elevation of about 3,000 feet. The preliminaries of preparing for Easter were everywhere. There were all kinds of decorations throughout the streets, but more importantly, the churches were prepared with the various statues and pictures and decorations shrouded in purple in recognition of the dead Christ.

The first manifestation of religious activity was on the evening of HOLY THURSDAY in the city of CALTANISSETTA, about a 35-minute drive from Enna. Along with my friend Franco Ingala from Enna, we drove to Caltanissetta, arriving after dark - about 8:30 p.m. Parking a distance from the main square due to the traffic, after a 10-minute walk we entered the large square, filled with thousands of people. The festivities had not yet begun, but there was music playing from different parts of the square. There were several town bands playing typical Italian music - not particularly religious, but the somber kind of marching music that is known throughout Italy.

About 9 PM, the signal was given to start the festivities with the commencement of a procession consisting of life size-statues depicting each of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. (Jesus is condemned to death; Jesus carries his cross; Jesus falls for the first time; Jesus meets His holy mother; Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry His cross; Jesus meets Veronica who wipes His face with a cloth; Jesus falls a second time; Jesus comforts the weeping women of Jerusalem; Jesus falls the third time; Jesus is stripped of His clothing; Jesus is nailed to the cross; Jesus dies on the cross; Jesus is taken down from the cross; Jesus is laid in the tomb.)

The statues were mounted on platforms about 8' x 8' in size, in turn mounted atop large pneumatic tires. They were partially pulled and partially pushed by selected persons associated with various churches and religious brotherhoods in the city. The platform space around the statues was heavily decorated with many beautiful fresh flowers, candles and streamers of fabric. These devices are referred to as the Vari . Each Vari was preceded by a band. It took about an hour for all fourteen to actually get underway because there were groups of people that were walking alongside, in front of and behind each of the Vari as they moved through the major streets and squares of the city until early morning.

On GOOD FRIDAY, Franco was my companion again as we stood alongside the main street in ENNA; a city of about 40,000, but very highly concentrated in its 1,000-meter elevation on a flat plateau. One can walk from one side of the city to the other in about 30 minutes. Throughout the afternoon, various members of 10 religious brotherhoods, the confraternities, were gathering at the Duomo (Cathedral). The confraternities are each affiliated with a church in the city. Each group was dressed in very unusual attire that dates back to the Spanish period (around 1500 - 1600); consisting of a white hood with a point on the top and a loose garment/gown over which was a colored upper piece (either yellow, blue, purple, black, green) - a variety of hues. They ranged in size of groups from about 50 to 150 with ages from very young to people who were in their 70's. Their faces were in full view because they wore the hoods above their heads.

Starting at 6 PM, they marched in double file on each side of the road, each carrying a pole that had a lamp attached. Each of the confraternities is dedicated to a certain element of Christianity and element of faith. For example, one of them would be dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, another one to the Crown of Thorns, another to the saddened Mother, Mary, the Santissima Addolorata, etc. The senior people in the group carried a representation of their particular dedication along with a banner that identified their group. There were five musical bands scattered throughout these ten groups. It took almost two hours for all the groups to pass. The final group consisted of people associated with the Duomo, who carried on their shoulders a huge platform with beams, atop which was mounted a life-size glass casket, trimmed in gold leaf (looking very much like the gold leaf of a fine picture frame). Inside was a life-size reclining statue of the dead Jesus. An incredibly life-like looking figure. The procession continued throughout all points of the city, returning to the Duomo at about midnight.

About 9:00 PM, after the event in Enna, we drove to the town of ASSORO, about 30 minutes from Enna, across the valley and up into more hills, at an elevation of about 2,000 meters. Arriving in Assoro about 9:30 pm, we again needed to park the car a considerable distance from the main square of the town. The town of Assoro today has about 5,000 inhabitants, but at its peak around the turn of the century it had 8,000 inhabitants. The residents of Assoro were not motivated to emigrate from Italy to the USA during the mass migration from 1885 to about 1915 because they were relatively prosperous. There were numerous active and productive sulfur mines which provided gainful employment for literally all of the townspeople. However, after the First World War, a major chemical company developed a synthetic substitute for sulfur and the demand for raw, mined sulfur disappeared. There being no work, from 1920 to 1930, there was a large migration from Assoro to primarily Canada and South America.



T
he town square was overflowing with people. We were escorted by the president of the town council (presidente del consiglio comunale) Saro Capizzi, a young man who is a good friend of my friend Franco from Enna. Saro works in Enna as the representative of one of the major political parties, in one of the secretariats of government. Saro greeted us and escorted us into the main church where the festivities were organized. He led us back into the sacristy and into the area were the various participants in the evenings activities were congregating.

At the steps of the main church there was a large platform device, attached to padded beams, that was to be carried by several people. Mounted on the platform was a crucifix about 15 feet tall - the most striking characteristic of which is that the head of the dead Christ on the cross, instead of being at a slight angle to the side as He is usually depicted, was hanging straight down at a 90-degree angle, representing the more realistic state or pose after death when there are no neck muscles to effectively hold the head up. This platform was about 25 feet long. Mounted along the two beams on each side were 20 candle holders of beautifully ornate antique metal and glass; each about 20 inches tall and 8 inches in diameter. In the center, around the crucifix, were an additional eight candelabra figures varying in height from four feet to six feet. At about 10 o'clock, the pastor of the church mounted the steps and began to give a talk on the virtues of being devoted to Christ and to participating in this very reverend manifestation of devotion on the evening of Good Friday. He kept exhorting the populous to continue to be devoted and to continue to pray and to lead good lives. Periodically, the priest would use the word " misericordia" in the text of his message. Whenever he uttered the word "misericordia", the members of the religious confraternities that sponsor this event would in unison repeat in very loud voices "misericordia" like a chant. During the oration, standing on either side of the platform device were men of ages ranging from teens up into their 70's all dressed in white. They wore a simple long sleeve white dress shirt, buttoned to the collar, with no tie or any other ornament around the neck. The "over" garment looked like a priest's cassock that came down to almost their ankles. Some of them had lace/needle-point characteristics, all in white.

All the men were barefoot. It was April 1996. We were about 2,000 meters high. The weather was bitterly cold. Everyone in the crowd, including me, was bundled up with a heavy coat and scarf and hat pulled down over your head to keep warm. But these men were in flimsy garments and they were barefoot on the pavement made of cobblestones. These men are known as "Nuddi" because they wore such scarce garments and because they go barefoot. I asked our host/escort how one is selected to be one of these platform bearers. In other communities, where there are manifestations that include either carrying or pushing or pulling some kind of a platform device, they have to be either members of some special organization and/or be selected by their peers as having earned the honor to do this. Saro explained, in this case, that these people were not selected on any kind of an individual or periodic annual or community-wide basis, but, rather that the right to carry this device has been passed down from father to son for 100's of years.

He explained that in the 1400's, during the Spanish period of domination of Sicily, the Prince of the feudal zone in which Assoro is located was named Prince of Valguarnera. His feudal territory extended over many miles, however he made Assoro his headquarters. In addition to being the Prince he was also a Bishop, presiding over that same church. The Prince/Bishop decided that he wanted a new crucifix to adorn the inside of the church. The craftsman noted for making this kind of religious article were located in another hill town - Nicosia, located about two hours walk away. The Prince ordered the crucifix made according to certain specifications – and it is the one still now in use.

After a period of time, the crucifix was completed and word came from Nicosia to Assoro, to the Prince, that it was going to be delivered. The workmen in Nicosia mounted the crucifix on a large wheeled cart and proceeded to bring it to Assoro. When they were a couple of miles outside of the town of Assoro, the cart broke down - the Nicosia workmen despaired as they had no tools to repair the cart. There were too few of them to carry the cross because it was so heavy. Leaving a few of their number to guard the cross, they returned to Nicosia to get help to repair the cart. Working in the adjacent fields were a number of Assoro peasants who observed the breakdown. They were quite concerned that their dear crucifix, the big cross, was going to be abandoned in the fields until the people from Nicosia returned. So, they, the peasants, proceeded to carry the cross on their shoulders into Assoro.

One of these peasants was partially crippled and wore special shoes to assist him to walk. As he began to assist with carrying the cross, the partially lame peasant decided to take off his shoes to walk better. When he proceeded to carry his part of the cross, his lameness was cured miraculously. At that point, the other peasants took off their shoes and all of them carried the cross into Assoro barefoot. That is why today's Nuddi carry the cross barefoot even in very cold weather. Saro said that only descendants of the original peasants that carried the cross in the 1400's could carry the cross today. They had to be either a male descendant or someone designated by that descendant to carry the cross.

The cross was carried throughout all of the streets in this village no matter how narrow they were and no matter how severe the turns were. There were steep inclines but that did not hamper this march. The band continued to precede the group playing their music. About every half hour the group would stop for a rest. At that time, specially constructed support stands resembling saw horses were withdrawn from side alleys and the platform was placed on the stands. According to tradition, the procession always stopped in the same relative locations in town. The residents of those locations served refreshments to the bearers. Also at that time the men that sang the laments of the blessed Mary would sing again in their very high tone - verses followed with low, long drawn-out guttural, harmonal tones. After ten minutes, the group again took up the platform with the cross and proceeded to other streets in the town. Some streets were so narrow that in order to get the cross through, they would turn the cross sideways, using a crank underneath, so that the arms of the crucifix would not touch the balconies that extended out over the street. The procession continued in that manner with their periodic stops and singing throughout the night, covering every street in the town until about 3:00 am.

Our host, Saro, explained that one of the many miraculous manifestations of this devotion is that on one occasion the bearers were carrying their burden near where the road from the highway enters the town. The road was under repair with only sharp, jagged gravel stones on the surface. The Nuddi, in bare feet, carried this heavy burden on the sharp surfaces without anyone suffering any cuts or bruises.

by Giuseppe Tambe'



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