The Carnival in Sicily has ancient origins. It is the feast of abundance and binge eating before Lent fasting.
This is the week of the year when delicious gravies and rich dishes are served at our tables; macaroni, cavateddi (a type of pasta) with meat sauce and pork rind, the traditional fat Thursday soup, typical of Modica County, and a lot of sweets as the Turkish’s heads of Scicli, the pignolata of Messina and the delicious chiacchere, strips of sweet pastry dough fried and coated with powdered sugar.
Many of the most famous masks arise from this celebration, as for example Peppi ‘Nappa, the king of carnival, the paladins and many popular characters who act out comic scenes, like the an unfortunate man who gets the surgery from a clumsy doctor who gut his body on a makeshift stretcher. And it is also the time of allegorical floats and parades, of the historical re-enactments and pantomimes, dances and ancient propitiatory rites.
In Catania, the Carnival often coincides with the Feast of Sant’Agata, and it is linked to the ancient tradition of the ‘ntuppatedde, when women from all walks of life, went around at night wearing a disguise. On that special night they could go everywhere, even in the places normally forbidden, because reserved for men, and they played tricks and seduction tecniques.
The Carnival of Acireale (Catania) is one of the most ancient of Sicily. The first Grotesque floats were built in 1880, and this old tradition has been kept alive, thanks to the expert and willing local artisans that convey all of their imagination and know-how in the creation of their artistic floats. The most characteristic mask was very likely the abbatazzu (the abbot) or poet minutizzu (a poet) that mimed the nobles and the clergy bringing around a lousy book, pretending to pronounce satirical and mocking sentences.
In Palazzolo Acreide (Siracusa), until the end of the sixties, great masked balls were organized, where people danced and played “sottonovanta“, a sort of lucky dip. Nowadays you can still dance in the main square, and watch the allegorical floats parade while eating the typical cavati and grilled sausages.
Great festivities are also organised in Chiaramonte Gulfi (Ragusa) where, on Fat Monday, they celebrate the Feast of the Sausage.
The Carnival of Sciacca (Agrigento) has very old origins and it seems to be linked to the ancient, Roman Saturnalia. The floats figures are majestic and the masked groups’ movements are very graceful and attractive. Artisans of papier-mache, architects, illustrators, blacksmiths, choreographers and dancers work for months and months with great alacrity and mastery. Unpublished poems in Sicilian dialect are recited by spontaneous poets whose satire is inspired by the local and national political personalities. The Grotesque floats and masked groups parade along the streets of the historical center starting from fat Thursday, when the key of the city is symbolically given to the king of Carnival, Peppi ‘Nappa, untill fat Tuesday, when the King’s Float is burnt at the stake
In Termini Imerese (Palermo) the parades of the Grotesque Floats satirize the personalities from the worlds of politics and entertainment. Very characteristic are the puppets of the Nannu and the Nanna, (the grandparents) whose tradition dates back to the mid-1800s, imported by the Neapolitans who came with the Borbones escaping from Naples. The Nannu (grandpa) represents the Carnival which is burnt at the stake on Fat Tuesday, marking the end of the period of the joy. The Nanna (grandma), on the other hand, is a thin and tall woman symbolizing the pain and the penitence of the Lent. One of the most amusing moments of the party is the reading of the Nannu’s will, through which the most important personalities of the city are teased.
Also in Corleone (Palermo), we find allegorical floats parading and the Nanno is burnt at the stake He is dressed up with a necklace of sausages and is carried over the riavulicchio‘s shoulders (the little devil), a tradition only recently recovered.
At Gioiosa Marea (Messina) the “Carnival of the Murgo” has been held for almost 70 years. It is so called because of the “murga” playing, a characteristic and colorful ramshackle orchestra, conducted by the “Murgo” wearing a top hat and tailcoat. It is a tradition imported from Argentina, by the coming back emigrants who had absorbed this aspect of the Latin-American culture, and enriched it with local elements from the maritime context.
The Carnival in Novara di Sicilia (Messina) , besides the traditional celebrations, provides a particular competition: The Race of the Maiorchino (a local cheese, a specialty obtained through particular processing and maturing processes). The local shepherds use aged Maiorchino to compete in a cheese-rolling race down the slopes of the village. The race ends with a Festival where you can taste this particular cheese, together with ricotta and the tuma.