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Ferragosto: The Centuries-Long History of How Summer Holiday Came To Be

“The 15th of August is when the whole country comes to a standstill, work wise that is.”

This is the thing about Italy, it always feels a bit like a holiday when summer comes.

It starts gently at the end of May. You know the holidays are getting closer when you start smelling food cooking from windows that have been left open–a clear sign that warm weather has arrived. The energy ramps up at the end of June, when weekends get longer. School is over. People leave the office a little earlier. Late night chatter is to be heard in many town squares. The heat increases, and so does the buzz, until the climax of Italian summer: Ferragosto, the 15th of August. 

By now much of the country is on holiday. Cities are silent, streets empty and shutters down, while beaches are at more than full capacity. Long dinner tables filled with families and friends are to be found pretty much everywhere. Glasses cling, toasts are made. If you are young, summer romances commence. 

The 15th of August is when the whole country comes to a standstill, work wise that is. Cities may feel suspended in time, but everywhere else is filled with energy and rapid motion. Families reunite. Picnics or lunches al fresco are to be had. Days are spent outdoors. And it all culminates in fireworks.

The holiday of Ferragosto started in the year 18 BC and was known as Feriae Augusti, the “rest” of the Emperor Augusto. Back then, the holiday wasn’t just one day, but almost a whole month. A host of pagan festivities also took place in August, all centred around the end of the harvest. From August 13th to 15th, ancient Romans celebrated Diana, goddess of the hunt. They adorned their heads with flowers and wrote wishes on ribbons that would be tied to trees. At night time, they held torches and lit candles. During those days, it was forbidden to hunt and dogs too were adorned with flowers. On August 19th, the Vinalia Rustica was held to celebrate wine. On the 21st, the Consualia was held to celebrate the deity Consus, protector of the harvest. Everyone was allowed to rest from work and party, even the slaves. Horses, mules and donkeys were adorned with flowers and employed for games. (The Palio di Siena, the famous horse race held on the 16th of August, seems to have roots in this celebration.) This string of festivities–originally intended to celebrate life, harvest and rest–blurred into a long one, and since then, August has become the month for holidaying in Italy. 

However, as the centuries went by and new powers rose and fell, other traditions formed. Around the 6th century, once it was the turn of the Catholic Church to run the calendar, the 15th of August was chosen to celebrate the Assumption of Mary, the ascent to heaven of the mother, one of the dogmas of the Catholic Church. As pagan festivities were replaced, there was no more mention of Diana–at least in name.

Fast forward to the 20th century. It is in the 1930’s that the gita fuori porta (a day out of town) takes hold. Going “out of town” was an activity endorsed during the early years of fascism, when a train ticket could be bought at a very cheap price, allowing even very poor people a day of holiday. The regime organised the program Treni Speciali Celeri per Servizi Festivi Popolari (Special Express Trains for Popular Holiday Services) from 1931 to 1939, when Italians could buy a roundtrip ticket for the day or for three days between the 13th and the 15th of August. Most roundtrip routes were available for less than 10 liras. As it was a national holiday and all public offices were closed, it was the only chance for many to visit the seaside, the mountains or a big city. Most couldn’t afford a meal at a restaurant, so they would bring a packed lunch, starting a tradition that is still going strong today as many Italians bring a meal to the beach, or on country walks, to celebrate the holiday.

It was only after the economic boom in the 50s that people could afford more elaborate and expensive lunches and the grigliata (grill) became the latest layer to be added to the gregarious festivity. 

I spent many a Ferragosto eating in my parents’ garden. Friends, family and neighbours would join as my mum was dishing out her infamous pomodori ripieni (tomatoes stuffed with bread and parmesan) and my dad poured copious wine. I remember it always ended with a watermelon, sticky fingers and seeds everywhere, and then the kids were unleashed to play and the parents would chatter the day away. If Italy is good at summer holidays, it isn’t a mere accident: we have a (centuries) long tradition of valuing rest, family, home cooked food…and a glass or two of wine.