St Agatha Festival: all you need to know
As the St Agatha Festival gets closer the streets of the city start to take on a magical quality known to no other. The procession of candles, different every year, the thousands sweet stalls and the imposing giant candelore and its gangs of devotees.
But let’s go back a bit, for those that haven’t yet experienced this infamous ‘festa’. The St Agata Festival is one of the biggest religious festivals in the world, based on the number of people that take part, and it takes place every year between 3 – 5 February, in honour of the patron Saint of the city of Catania.
Agata, before she became a Saint
Agata was born in the 3rd Century to a noble family of Catania, and from a young age she dedicated her life to Christianity. She was known for her beauty and the Roman governor Quinziano wanted her to be his at any cost, but after her many refusals and fleeing to Palermo, Quinziano decided to make her a martyr and condemned her to death on the afternoon of 5 February 215 AD.
After her death the populus discovered a deep veneration for the young woman, so much so that she was sanctified by Pope Cornelius.
3 February – The procession of candles
The 3 February begins with the procession of the illuminations, or the procession of the candles, which sees thousands of townspeople and tourists from all over the world participating.
The procession starts with the parade of the 12 ‘candelore’, huge wooden constructions, carved and gilded in Sicilian Baroque style, which each carry inside a large candle. Each one of these candelore represents one of the trades or arts of the city.
The procession sets off from the Church of Sant’Agata in Piazza Stesicoro and ends at the Cathedral of Sant’Agata in Piazza Duomo, having passed all the principal streets of the city. That evening Piazza Duomo comes alive with a symphonic concert playing in time to a fireworks display!
4 February – The dawn mass and the tour around the external parts of the city
This is a long day, in fact it starts at 3:30, when a stream of devoted worshipers in white clothing (known in dialect as “u saccu”) burst into the Cathedral, shouting and singing. When the high authorities arrive they open the chapel that holds the silver half-bust of the Saint and the casket of her relics, and then she is brought outside and presented to the townspeople, who wave their white handkerchiefs in the air and shout in dialect, “semu tutti devoti tutti, cittadini viva sant’Aita!”
Sant’Agata is placed on the altar and so the emotional dawn procession begins, at the end of which she is placed on the precious ‘fercolo’ outside the Cathedral as fireworks are set off in Piazza Duomo. Carried by her devoted townspeople, the Saint begins the tour around the external parts of the city before returning to the Cathedral at sundown or indeed the morning of Day 5. The most moving part of this procession is the “a cchianata di Cappuccini”, when she is carried up a steep climb to reach the Chuch of Saint Domenic.
5 February – The tour of the city centre
The St Agatha Festival of Catania begins with a solemn pontifical, concelebrated by all the bishops of Sicily, in the presence usually of a cardinal. The tour of the city centre begins at 18.00, passing by all the important parts of the old centre, including Via Etnea, Piazza Cavour, i Quattro Canti, the spectacular“cchianata i San Giulianu” during with the devoted carry her up the steep road until reaching the Baroque street of Via Crociferi and the Benedictine Convent. Once before the convent the devoted townspeople stop and from behind the gates of their convent the nuns sing in choir to the Saint. At sunrise, the morning of 6 February, Sant’Agata returns to the Cathedral.
To best understand the St Agatha Festival, click here to watch a documentary made by videomaker Marco Pirrello in 2018.
The sweets of Sant’Agata
During the Festival of Sant’Agata in Catania all sorts of sweets are made in memory of the Saint, including “le minnuzze di Sant’Agata”, sweet little Sicilian ‘cassate’ in the form of the small breasts that were torn from the Saint when she was martyred, and the “alivetti”, made out of green icing sugar and in the form of olives, referring to the legend that the virgin Agata, when running from Quinziano’s soldiers, had hidden herself in an olive tree.
Visit Sicilying to find out what experiences can be had during the St Agatha Festival !