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Sant’Agata: The Beautiful Patronal Feast

“A festa ‘i sant’Àjita”

Venerated by Catholics and Orthodox, she is the patron saint of Catania. Her feast, which has been celebrated for centuries every year from February 3rd to February 5th, is one of the most beautiful patronal feasts in the world and involves thousands of devotees and curious, who fill the streets of the city in honor of their “Santuzza”. Days of worship, devotion, folklore and traditions comparable only to the Holy Week in Seville and the feast of Corpus Domini in Cuzco, Saint Agata’s spectacular procession of relics has been declared World Heritage by Unesco.

The story narrates that Agata was born into a patrician family of Christian religion, around 230 AD, and from an early age she consecrated her life to religion. At the time Catania was under Roman domination that barbarously persecuted anyone who professed Christianity, which is why Agata’s family, like the whole Christian community, lived their faith in silence. She was said to be particularly beautiful and was noticed by the Roman governor Quinziano who decided she wanted her for himself. Agata fled to Palermo but Quinziano found her and forced her to return to Catania, where he tried to coax and seduce her in every way. At Agata’s decisive refusal, he persecuted and tortured her as a Christian – including ripping of her breasts – and, continuing the refusal of the young woman, he had her put to death on the afternoon of February 5, 251 AD. 

The first day of the celebration in her honour is reserved for the offering of candles. A suggestive popular custom has it that the candles given are as tall or as heavy as the person requesting protection. Two eighteenth-century carriages, which once belonged to the senate that governed the city, and eleven Candelore, large candles representing corporations and trades, are carried in procession. This first day of celebration ends in the evening with a grandiose firework display in Piazza Duomo. The fireworks during the feast of Sant’Agata, in addition to expressing the great joy of the faithful, take on a particular meaning because they remind citizens that the patroness, martyred over the embers, always watches over the fire of the nearby Etna volcano, as well as all fires. 

February 4th is the most exhilarating day, because it marks the meeting of the city with the Patron Saint. The real religious feast begins this morning with the Mass of the Dawn, when the reliquary bust of Saint Agatha after a year of waiting is taken out of the room that keeps it, and “delivered” to the devotees who will carry it in procession. Already from the very first hours of dawn the streets of Catania are filled by citizens and devotees wearing the traditional sack (a votive gown of white cloth up to the ankle and tied at the waist by a cord), a black velvet cap, and white gloves, as they wave a white handkerchief ironed in thick folds. Three different keys, each guarded by a different person, are needed to open the iron gate that protects the relics in the cathedral. When the third key removes the last thrust from the gate of the room where the Bust is kept and the chapel is opened, the smiling and serene face of Saint Agata looks out of the room in the growing jubilation of the faithful, impatient to see her again. Shimmering with gold and precious gems, the bust of Saint Agatha is hoisted on the Renaissance silver fercolo, lined with red velvet, the color of martyrdom blood, but also the color of Kings. 

On the morning of February 5th, the Pontifical Mass presided over by the highest local and non-local religious officials and by the clergy takes place at the Cathedral basilica. Throughout the day the reliquary bust of Saint Agatha remains on display at the Cathedral and finally in the afternoon, after the Holy Mass, it is again entrusted to the devotees for a last procession along an internal route of the city that will see it end in the late morning of the following day February 6.

At dawn on day 6, the Fercolo with the relics arrives in via Crociferi, Catania’s most impressive street, lined with baroque churches and grand aristocratic palaces. It’s the moment in which the Saint greets the city before the conclusion of the celebrations. Throughout the night, thousands of citizens in white coats have braved the cold, shouting “Viva Sant’Agata” in moments full of magic and spirituality. At this point, while the atmosphere suddenly falls silent, the angelic song of the cloistered Benedictine nuns rises, as they exit the monastery once a year, to sing for the saint. The origin of the text and music is lost in the mists of time, even if a legend tells that its author was a Sicilian named Tarallo, who composed it specifically for the cloistered nuns of San Benedetto.

During the holiday period, the desserts linked to the tradition of Catania’s Patron Saint could not be more symbolic. In addition to the famous Calia and Simenza (a typical Sicilian preparation consisting of chickpeas and pumpkin seeds, prepared and consumed both in summer and in winter throughout the island, on the occasion of patronal feasts) some sweets are specifically made for the occasion: Cassateddi – also known as Minnelle – and Olivette, are characteristic symbolic sweets related to the virgin Saint. The first represent Agata’s breasts, that were snatched from her during the martyrs to which she was subjected while trying to force her to abjure her faith. The Olivette, on the other hand, refer to the legend that she, pursued by Quinziano’s men near the praetorian palace, stopped to rest for a moment. At the same moment in which she stopped – legend says to fasten a shoe – an olive tree appeared out of nowhere and the young girl was able to take shelter and even eat its fruits. Today, to renew the memory of that prodigious event, it is customary to cultivate an olive tree in a flowerbed near the places of martyrdom, and to consume these olive-shaped candies made with royal almond paste during the holidays.