August 15th, 2010
Mid-August, and the mercury rises. It’s Ferragosto in Italy, when anyone with legitimate vacation time (or a clever excuse) heads for the beach. Very few points on the Italian peninsula are more than 75 miles from the Mediterranean, so even if it’s only an afternoon beneath a striped umbrella, this is indeed the season to savor la dolce vita.
Third- and fourth-generation Italian-Americans may not recognize the term “Ferragosto,” derived from the pre-Christian Feriae Augusti. These mid-month holidays, named for the Roman emperor Augustus, marked a brief lull in the cycle of agricultural labor, when the rains of autumn were still weeks ahead and the full harvest was not yet underway. But to assure that the bounty of summer would continue through the fall, Romans honored fertility deities with offerings of vegetables, fruits, and sheaves of grain.
Early Christians believed that the Virgin Mary’s resurrection and entry into heaven occurred on the 15th of August. Christianity superimposed the celebration of Mary’s ascent (assunta/assumption) over the pagan worship of the the virgin goddess, Diana. Thus, the Feast of the Assumption took on much of the color of the earlier rites.
Hundreds of religious festivals of Christian and pre-Christian origin still take place throughout the year in Italy. Many are extremely localized, commemorating a specific historical event or intercession by a patron saint to save the population from flood or famine. Early Italian immigrants to America maintained many of these festivals wherever their paesani were in sufficient numbers to stage the processions, sing the songs, and prepare the foods significant to the occasion.
However, as Italians in America assimilated, Napolitani married Pugliese; Sicilians worked among Calabrese and French Canadians; Marchese went to church with Hungarians and Poles. The Catholic calendar was still observed, but practices changed in America. Festivals needed legions of volunteers… Parades required municipal permits… Church auxiliaries and cultural organizations like the Sons of Italy and Knights of Columbus needed to reach beyond their ethnic neighborhoods to raise funds for their charitable projects. New England’s Portuguese fishermen had a Blessing of the Fleet—so did the Italians. In a small town, two or more distinct groups often supported the same church. Gradually, lines between immigrant communities softened.
Across North America, the descendants of Italian immigrants continue to celebrate their heritage by organizing street fairs, especially in summer, when days are long and food vendors can count on a steady stream of Italophile customers to snack their way through the games of chance, musical performances, and other cultural displays.
For the devout, the Feast of the Assumption is still a significant day in the liturgical year, and many parishioners attend Mass before the festivities. But for the vast majority of festival attendees, saints and symbols have faded in importance. Increasingly, the advertising for Italian-American summer festivals has become less specific: Is it the Feast of St. Rosalia? St. Donato? St. Rocco? St. Sebastian? Or of Our Lady of the Assumption? Many cities and congregations have simply opted to hold the all-inclusive Festa Italiana.
Meanwhile, we hope that it’s not one more sign of global warming that Arthur Avenue, the Little Italy of the Bronx, plans to hold its own 2010 “Ferragosto” on September 12th! Figurati!
Blurred dates aside, what has remained constant at America’s Italian festivals is the emphasis on foods consumed by slowly ambulating crowds. The offerings of mobile kitchens—sausage and peppers, fried calamare, and clam “stuffies”—say more about Boston or Providence than Italy. Modern Italians are surprised that we will stand to eat cheese-laden slices of pizza, behavior far more representative of Cleveland or New York than of Italy, where pizza tends to be a light, sit-down meal.
Sweets have have stayed closer to their Italian antecedents. No self-respecting Roman or Palermitano making an evening passeggiata would want to wolf down chocolate-dipped cannoli or guzzle iced cappucino. But both he an his American cousins can manage their stroll while enjoying freshly fried zeppole dusted with sugar, a cup of lemon granita, or a cone of strawberry gelato.
Whether you’re in Ischia or Indianapolis, during Ferragosto, it’s all about the food of nostalgia and the sweet slowness of summer.