The Festival of Sant’ Agata is judged to be the second largest festival in Europe, closely following the chasing of bulls around the streets somewhere in Spain.
The underlying principle is that Sant’ Agata’s relics are taken around the town once a year. This is achieved by mounting her shrine on a large sledge, which is then dragged by her devotees through the streets over a three-day period.
The first thing that we should be aware of is that this combination weighs a few tons and, since it is on skids rather than wheels, takes a considerable amount of pulling. Fortunately, the streets of Catania are mostly made of lava blocks which can stand the wear better than tarmac would do. This material is courtesy of nearby Mount Etna which is still spitting the stuff out from time to time, keeping the locals well supplied with building materials. Just as well since it also destroys a few every time it erupts.
There are well in excess of 5,000 devotees of all ages, men,women, boys and girls. They all wear white gowns, white gloves and black caps.
The whole atmosphere is very much of family and friends
The shrine sledge has two heavy ropes, probably 100 meters long, tied on the front for them to pull.
The normal pace is a very slow walk.
The shrine is stopped at various points of significance where the shrine crew continue their normal tasks:
- Taking candles, unlit, from the crowd. Some of these are lit and placed at the back in a holder. Some are not lit and placed in other racks or bins.
- Taking flowers which are placed around the base of the shrine.
- Giving out single flowers to anyone who asks for them. These do not appear to be the same flowers that are taken on board yet there seems to be no lack of space for flowers taken in and no shortage of flowers to give out.
- Giving out pictures of Sant’ Agata.
- Taking in donations of money, usually €5 notes.
At each stopping place, the senior priest delivers a brief prayer and sermon using a PA system which is deployed around the crowd. This is followed by a blessing before moving on to the next stopping place.
As the procession continues, the lead priest delivers blessings. It is not clear as to whether he looks for eye contact with an individual who seems to want a blessing or whether he delivers whenever he feels appropriate. Either way, a blessing is delivered about every few minutes.
On the front of the shrine cart, sits a man who looks much more serious than any of his colleagues and I surmise that he is the “mule” driver in charge of controlling the logistics.
He has good reason to look serious as his task is not an easy one – in fact I have no idea how he does it.
For a start, there are corners. Now the devotees could just come to a corner and go round it. But this would not work on two counts:
- The power can only be delivered in a straight line. If they went round a curve, the final point before the shrine turned would have but a very few devotees able to apply pull.
- More probably, the whole cortege would be dragged into cutting the corner and there are buildings it would collide with.
The solution is that the devotees go past the corner and stop when the shrine is at the corner. They then walk back with the ropes and re-extend them in the new direction. The shrine is re-aligned by other devotees and progress can be made.
Given that there are up to 5,000 mules, most of whom are wandering off and chatting to friends, having coffee or talking on their mobile phones, how does he tell them when to start or stop? It just seemed to happen without any means of obvious communication!
The only communication seemed to be when a devotee would suddenly turn round and shout back to the shrine. I guess this was an inspirational vow of allegiance or prayer to Sant’ Agata. Whenever this happened, one or two people near him or her would hug or hold him or her while the prayer was shouted. These events occurred every few minutes and were either met with applause from the crowd, a chant from the other devotees or a song (hymn?).
I visited this event in the company of Lars, a mischievous Swedish farmer (in the green jacket), whose first interaction on arrival was to offer this gentleman €50 for his hat! On being turned down, he tried for the next policeman. Again no luck but later I took the second photo which I think proves that Lars was being closely watched from that point onwards…
The final night celebrations are an all night affair in the grand manner.
The procession starts on its journey at about 6pm arriving at the top of the town around 5am where a massive firework display is given before they complete the other half of the journey. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t manage to last the course even till the firework display, much less the finish line.
The streets are decorated with lights and banners. The street surface is spread with saw dust in copious quantities to provide a sure footing and to keep as much or the wax off the cobbles as possible.
The procession is led by the candle bearers. We are talking about large, heavy candles here…
carried through the milling crowds, mostly in teams. They do the journey in short spurts with one member of the team trying to get onlookers out of the way by shouting “Attenzione”. You quickly learn to watch out for them as being thumped by one of these would, at best, leave you with covered in enough wax on your clothes to make you into your own personal candle. Why there weren’t spontaneous combustions of the public is one of the many mysteries surrounding the event.
At various points on the route, there are churches and effigies of St Agata. These are honoured by the candle-bearers with prayer and chants.
This is a young man’s thing, though we did see a few women candle-bearers and children carrying smaller candles.
This bearer had clearly got too close to the flame, but spirits were definitely up for all except the few who had been overambitious in their choice of candle.
Next came the candelore. These are made of wood, intricately carved and gilded, around 6 meters high and heavy.
Each is moved about 20 meters in turn and represents a guild. Some guilds have dropped out over the years so these are the last 11 paraded.
The carrying team appears to have four weight bearers with sacking headgear designed to share the weight between the head and the shoulders. There are two who carry the shafts and guide the move as well as carrying weight. Then there are men either side whose job it is to keep the structure upright.
The convoy is impressive and the center of a lot of attention.
Finally St Agata’s shrine is pulled by the enormous team of around 5,000 devotees.
Many hours of the spectacular is shown live on television so even those who cannot attend can join in the celebration.