Tradition Burns Brightly Against a Night Sky
Sam Dunham shares an unforgettable tradition
Photograph: Giancarlo Malandra
Wednesday 03 January 2024
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Abruzzo captivates visitors with its legendary and diverse sagre and festivals that unfold across the four seasons.
As you look up at enchanting Apennine villages that seem to impossibly cling to mountainside spurs, one discovers the ancient origins of these celebrations that are rooted in pre-Roman Italic tribes but which now wear a repackaged Catholic veneer.
Travelling up and down mountains used to take time and was reserved for trade, so entertainment needed to be home-brewed and accessible. Over millennia, sagre and festivals grew to proudly showcase an area’s best produce, culinary skills, music and historical storytelling which in turn attracted trade.
Fire takes centre stage in these key sagre celebrations, turning villages into vibrant hubs of warmth. Gathered around a bonfire with a glass of superb Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and a winter sausage ‘fegato’ panini, white or black truffle bruschetta are great reasons to get outdoors!
The fires not only dispel the winter blues but also symbolise hope and communal comfort, historically countering anxiety and marking the end of a challenging harvest or winter.
Fires around Saint Martin’s Day when Vino Novello is opened celebrate the close of the agricultural year, whilst the traditional fires of Immaculate Conception Day were to attract Faunus, the god of fertility to return at the winter solstice. Saint John the Baptist Day is staged at the traditional harvest time in June, and you can still find some locals joyously dancing through flames as part of the purification ceremony!
In the middle of January people come together to prepare for the feast of Saint Antonio Abate, the patron saint of smallholders, farming folk, and the keeper of hearth embers. His legend intertwines with agricultural symbolism, signifying the sun’s return and the nurturing of new life. Part of his ‘fire’ story is that whilst he sparred with the Devil, his piglet supposedly stole glowing embers from the Devil’s fire for life back up on Earth.
Preparations for this feast involve communal efforts, with men and mules collecting wood for the warming centrepiece. In the evening members of the community don the guise of itinerant musicians, re-enacting the Passion of San Antonio through song as they tour around the houses, their reward pastries shaped like sparrows (a symbol of San Antonio), filled with grape jam, crushed almonds, and chocolate, a modern twist on a timeless tradition.
Celebrations start with the ‘Blessing of the Animals’; pets, chickens, sheep, and goats are bought along to be blessed by the local priest. Then the fire is lit, followed by street food, drinking, storytelling, music and dancing, which all transcend the winter chill.
From roaring bonfires to diverse communal feasts, every aspect of a sagra is steeped in history and heartfelt camaraderie, bearing witness to ancient community bonds and diverse cultural identities. Abruzzo is a fascinating destination for those seeking a genuine and enchanting Italian experience, even in January!
• Highlights and January Must-Sees for the Vigil and Feast of San Antonio Abate—Fara Filiorum Petri (CH) Casoli (CH), Tossicia (TE), Collelongo (AQ)
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