Sant’Agata, the incorruptible tradition fireworks, friends and family, a culture of unity
06/02/2016 - 08:02
di Jenna Lillie
I have not travelled far or wide enough to draw on a personal experience that parallels the one I had on the 3rd of February 2016. The opening ceremony for Sant’Agata, the Christian virgin martyr, was a spectacular event unlike anything I have ever witnessed. South Africa, from what I know, doesn’t throw celebratory parties where a city shuts down to enjoy the festivities surrounding a religious figure. Catania is predominantly Catholic so it makes sense for an entire city to come to a standstill becoming a festive hub of activity: candy-vendors, all-night shopping, coffee-breaks and general family and friend gatherings.
I had a very special experience of the ceremony. I wouldn’t say there is one authentic way to enjoy this moment but I probably didn’t hustle like the rest of the crowd on the streets. I watched the events from the third floor overlooking the Piazza Duomo. I felt like I was on top of the world looking down at the packed streets below. I could see everything and it was magical. Thousands of people huddled together listening to the orchestra while the tension built. Everyone was waiting for the main event: the fireworks display. And it did not disappoint in the least. In fact it was overwhelmingly present.
We were so close to the fireworks I actually hid. Guests stood on the patio watching in awe; while I watched in a mixture of genuine horror and wonder. It felt like each explosion was a sensory overload. My nose filled with the smell of gunpowder, my eyes were hit with some pieces of fireworks from the sky, my ears were ringing and it was disorientating but spectacular.
It was truly magical, in the way that a rollercoaster climbs and climbs and then peaks, only to fall. You feel your heart rate build with each new explosion of colourful patterns. I flinched with each new burst of colour while a nearby Sicilian grandmother didn’t blink an eyelid. She sipped her champagne and ate her tiny dessert.
I looked down at the crowd as they watched the sky with such excitement and energy. There was a buzz below, a whole city of locals and visitors had come to this one spot. A city united over Sant’Agata. Although it was obvious that people came for various reasons: religion, a fun night out, tradition an excuse for romance and family/friend gatherings. It didn’t matter why people had come here, they just had. I had the privileged vantage point to see many stories unfold in the streets and windows below me. For some this was a huge affair that needed celebration while for others it was just the same event that happened every year and would continue to happen.
On the 5th of February, the real event took place: The procession for Sant’Agata. I had hoped to be in and amongst everyone and I finally got what I wished for. I stood amongst thousands of people who had flocked to the streets to get a glimpse of the mighty Sant’Agata proceeding through the centre of Via Etnea. She was magnificent, shrouded in gifts of flowers and candles. She shone like a golden beacon in the night. Surrounded and carried by her followers in white robes.
I have only ever experienced one major festival and it was a South African musical festival so I have very little knowledge of what it is like to be surrounded by thousands of people. Bodies pressed against eachother, it was hard to move and hard to see anything. The streets were filled with people pushing and shoving to get a better spot. It was all quite overwhelming; claustrophobic and once again an amazing but disorientating event.
Once again the entire evening was a sensory adventure. The air smelt sweet from the sweets and candies sold on the side of the road, the cobbled streets were filled with sawdust making it easier to walk. The air was cold but the enormous candle displays provided some warmth. Watching men haul a gigantic candle on their shoulder was almost as hypnotising as the actual procession. It was all so lively and well-synchronised. I wonder how much practice goes into this event.
I loved that I got to meet many different people. I walked along the streets listening to friends talk about Sant’Agata, watching older ladies praying to her, seeing friends and family lean out their windows taking pictures. This day was important to everyone in different ways. Older generations explained the story of the young martyr to younger generations. A kind, new friend took the time to explain the entire festival to me in English so I could appreciate the experience even more. And I did. I think Sant’Agata Festival, amongst many other things, is about uniting generations, forging memories and using this opportunity to embrace a culture of togetherness which Sicily is famous for.
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