Going to Catania in February is an incredible experience: there is definitely an emotive atmosphere.
Those three days of cult, devotion, folklore and traditions are unique in the world; something similar to the feast of Sant’Agata, that began about five centuries ago, can be the Holy Week in Seville, Spain, and the feast of Corpus Domini in Cuzco, Peru.
During the three days, the city becomes crowded of celebrating people; everything is abuzz during the preparations to honour the patron saint, Virgin and Martyr from Catania, whose charming history was able to move even the hardest hearts. For three days, people get together in the streets and plazas. Devotees and curious count up to hundreds of thousands and sometimes reach one million.
Our Agata resisted to the perversity of a corrupt society and abuse of power, while keeping her morality and dignity; however, it costed her painful martyrs and her life. Her miracles are linked to dangerous volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and epidemics in Catania. The story tells about the flowing lava of 1169 that occurred on the eve of the saint’s celebration, right after the earthquake; the lava came down all the way to the sea where it was miraculously stopped by the veil of the beautiful young saint that was carried in procession by the faithful; thus, it defeated the old and terrible volcano. Catania was saved and since then, every year for more than five centuries, Catania begins celebrating St. Agata on February 3rd; the splendid baroque Etnea and San Giuliano avenues become crowded with visitors from all over the world, who carry lights throughout the city.
Those are three days of solemnity, from February 3rd to the 5th, when Sant’Agata, in her silver float, ‘a vara, goes among her people, between popular and noble neighborhoods.
On February 3 at noon, the feast begins with a long and solemn procession for the Wax Offer. From the Church of “Sant’Agata alla Fornace” to the Basil Cathedral, the procession “cuts” between two wings of an unbelievably large crowd.
After the eleven Candlemas –expression of the city’s guilds of trades – close, there are the two carriages with the Senate of Catania: a sedan from the eighteenth century, followed by a smaller car, carries community leaders, the past “Senate”, formed by the “patrizio” (the mayor) and the “jury” (councilors). In the evening, there is the “A Sira ‘u tri”, the great show of fireworks in Piazza Duomo.
In the dawn of February 4, after the Mass of the Aurora, the bust of the Saint leaves the strong room of the cathedral and it turns first on the right, then on the central nave. This is the end of waiting: pathos is strong and, between shouts and chants, the procession begins. The Saint and the relics are carried outside the ancient walls of the city, driven by a silver float, the “vara”. It first moves towards the church of Sant’Agata alla Fornace, where the martyrdom took place, then to Sant’Agata al Carcere; there, an olive tree (planted right in front) recalls how the virgin, escaping from the men of Quinziano, managed to feed herself with its fruits. Towing the float quickly up the hill of the Capuchins is a tradition; in the meantime, the citizens, with their traditional black hat and votive white costume, ‘u saccu, wave a white handkerchief in the right hand and invoke the Patron: “Tutti devoti tutti, cittadini, viva Sant’Agata”. And there is another firework show.
February 5 is the “peak” of the feast, the most awaited day for the locals.
In the afternoon, the float leaves Piazza Duomo to make a ride in the city; it moves at a slow pace and takes immediately Etnea avenue, then it reaches piazza Università. And then again, it moves to piazza Stesicoro and, further, to Villa Bellini. The float reaches Piazza Cavour late at night, called Piazza Borgo by the people from Catania.
After a long and magnificent firework show, the “vara” reaches the intersection “Quattro canti” and goes uphill on the San Giuliano ascent. While marching uphill, the exciting race of the Candlemas occurs, which precedes the race of the cord, in which a cord is pulled by thousands running “citizens” (if all goes well, the year of the harvest will also be fine); the races end at the intersection with Via Crociferi. There, the charming song of the cloistered Benedictine nuns honors the Saint.
Then it is almost a race to enter the church, but the daylight has already become very clear. It’s an exciting time, the screams cease: you can see happiness on the citizens’ faces, having spent intense days with their Patron, but also tiredness. However, with the little voice remaining, illuminated by the last fireworks, they still shout: “Cittadini, viva Sant’Agata!” (Citizens, long live Sant’Agata!).