7 Unique Traditions in Italy
Italy is steeped in age-old traditions, quirky customs and unusual superstitions. And, while it might not be Europe’s largest countries, it is one of its most diverse, encompassing 20 regions with their own distinctive cultures, dialects and histories. Looking to fit in? From beach days to exploding carts, here are some of the most surprising and unique traditions in Italy.
7 Unique Traditions in Italy
Part holy-day, part full-blown fiest, Ferragosto takes place every year in Italy on 15th August. It’s a one-day national bank holiday but it trickles into the weeks preceding it. Entire cities empty and everyone flocks to the beach. Depending on where you are in the country, there might be religious processions, ancient palios, parties and food festivals too.
It derives from the Latin Feriae Augusti, which Emporer August introduced to celebrate the end of the agricultural working year and give thanks to the God of Earth and Fertility. Workers were invited to celerbate with a day off, performances, horse races and entertainment. In the 1920s, Mussolini made it a national holiday. He introduced the ‘People’s Trains of Ferragosto’ that gave travel discounts to workers to leave the city and head off to the seaside or lakes.
Carneavle takes place in the weeks leading up to Easter. It’s a final big bash before lent begins, which usually involves masquerade balls, music, parties and entertainments. Pranks and mischief are a central theme, hence the phrase “a Carnevale ogni scherzo vale,” which means “anything goes at Carnevale.” The tradition dates back to pagan festivals that were adapted with the introduction of Catholicism.
While celebrations take place across the country, Venice hosts the best-known celebrations. It starts two weeks before the traditional date, with events and entertainment held nightly. Hotels throw masked balls and offer rented costumes for tourists, events take place in ever sestiere and there are huge gondola and boat parades along the Grand Canal. It all culminates in the fireworks show at Piazza San Marco.
3. Friday weddings are bad luck
When it comes to weddings, Italians are a superstitious bunch. Italians don’t tend to get married on Friday as it’s thought that evil sprits created this day of the week. Tuesdays are also bad luck as couple who marry on this day are more likely to fight in the guture. For maximum guarantees of fertility and prosperity, most Italians opt to say ‘I do’ on a Sunday. Brides should also avoid looking in the mirror on your wedding day and guests should never-ever wear white.
Another popular tradition sees the groom carry a tiny piece of iron in his jacket pocket to ward away evil spirits. The bride should also make a small tear in her veil to bring the good luck. In Southern Italy, the length of veil should reflect the length of engagement; one metre for every year.
4. Easter is a big deal
With almost 75% of the country identifying as catholic, it comes as no surprise that Easter is a big deal in Italy – but some of the quirky traditions that come with it might do. Celebrations differ across the country too. For instance, in Florence they practice the unique tradition of ‘scoppio de carro’, which means ‘exploding of a cart’. Essentially, this involves decorating a wagon, filling it with fireworks, leading it through the city and then handing it over the Archbishop to shoot a dove-shaped rocket into it for an earth-shuddering explosion.
On Palm Sunday, it’s customary to place palm leaves and olive branches outside your home. And while the Easter Bunny is unlikely to make an appearance (it’s not an Italian tradition), fear not, there will be plenty of chocolate eggs to go around. The culinary piece de resistance is the Easter Cake, known as ‘Colomba’. It’s usually made with candied orange peels, almonds and lots of sugar. In the South, thy also eat ‘Pastiera’, a ricotta pie. The day after Easter is a national holiday too.
5. Christmas lasts a really long time
In Italy, Christmas kicks off on 8th December, the Day of the Immaculate Conception. People tend to start putting decorations up around this time, and Romans launch a canon from the Castel Sant’Angelo to officially mark the start of the season. The festivities continue right up until 6th January, the Day of the Epiphany. Between the two dates, there are multiple holidays and celebrations such as St. Ambrose’s Day (Milan) St. Lucia’s Day, Santo Stefano… That’s why Italians say buone feste (happy holidays) rather than buon natale (merry Christmas).
Italians refer to the eight days before Christmas as Novena. It celebrates the shepherdss journey to the baby Jesus’ manger. Children typically dress as shepherds and sing Christmas carols in return for sweets or money.
6. Everyone needs a red pair of undies
If you’re visiting Italy in December, you might notice markets stalls and shops selling a disproportionate amount of red underwear. That’s because Italians believe that wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve will bring good luck for the year to come. You should only wear red underwear on 31st December though, otherwise you risk jeopardising your good fortune. To really make the most of your luck, you’re supposed to throw it away the next day. The tradition dates back to ancient Rome; military would wear red tunics during battle to symbolize strength and scare off their enemies.
Other popular traditions include eating 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight, frightening away evil spirits with fireworks and ensuring you have cash in your pocket on New Year’s Day.
7. Out with the old!
That’s not the only New Year’s tradition Italians stick to either. They take the old adage ‘out with the old’ very literally when New Year’s rolls around. In some parts of the country, particularly in the south, people will throw their old things out of the window. These aren’t small items either, we’re talking old chairs, tables, saucepans. The idea is that by throwing out your old gear by midnight, you can prepare your home for new good fortune in the new year.