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Observe Lent in Italy
The 40 days leading up to Easter are sacred for Italian Catholics - and anyone who happens to be visiting Italy at the time
Italy, with Venice's annual festivities, is much more famous for Carnevale, the day before Lent begins, than it is for the 40-day countdown to Easter. However, among Catholics, who make up the majority of Italy, Lent is the holiest time of year. And there is much work to do in preparation of the anniversary of when Jesus rose from the dead.
Known as Quaresima, or the 40th day, in Italian, Lent is the word Catholics use to describe the fast before Easter. The idea is to abstain from certain things, especially on Fridays, as penance for our sins, and to reflect on Jesus' resurrection, especially on Sundays during Lent. Forty is a significant number in the Bible - to name a few examples, Moses is on the mountain for 40 days, it rains for 40 days and nights in the story of Noah's Arc, and Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness praying and fasting, according to religion and Bible experts.
Today, many Catholics - including many Italians - still make sacrifices or changes during Lent in an attempt to be closer to Jesus. The most well-known tradition during Lent is meatless Fridays. On Ash Wednesday and every Friday until Easter arrives, Catholics refrain from eating any sort of meat. Fish, vegetables, and fruits are acceptable. The very old, the very young, and the sick are exempt from this rule and can eat meat if they so choose. Some Italian Catholics refrain from eating meat on Fridays year round. It's a personal choice and is no longer a Church rule.
In addition to refraining from eating meat on Fridays, most Catholics choose to either do a good deed (volunteering at a hospital, donating food and supplies to the poor, etc.) or to give up something they love (chocolate, watching television) during Lent. The idea is to make a sacrifice like the one Jesus made for us. Many Italian Catholics observe Mass more frequently during the season of Lent. Some even go to morning services everyday. This is especially true of the older generation in Italy. Nowadays, young people in Italy tend to lead more secular lives.
Still, when Holy Week, or the week before Easter rolls around, many Italians take to Catholicism again. The churches tend to be much fuller than usual on Palm Sunday, where you will typically get small pieces of palm that looks very different than the kind we are used to in the United States. Sometimes, the palm even looks silver and comes wrapped in plastic.
Bottles of holy water are usually blessed and offered to Mass attendants throughout the week (at least that's always been the case in Ischia, where I've celebrated Lent and Easter numerous times). Other highlights of Holy Week include the Stations of the Cross, which are often done outdoors with a procession, and additional live music during many Masses. Of course, the Vatican is one of the most visited destinations during this period - and guests are invited to observe the many important days of Holy Week and the Easter holiday with the pope.
Even for the numerous Italians who are not that religious, Lent is a spiritual time, especially in the south. The weather starts to turn warmer and people get some time off work. There's an air of hope and celebration. The flowers start to bloom and the sun shines, and it seems like God is speaking to the world through nature. In fact, the English word "Lent" means springtime. It is a time when we are looking forward to rebirth in nature and religion.
As Easter approaches, Italians - at least those who are tied to tradition - prepare for a big feast. Many of them collect red onion skins that they use to dye Easter eggs. In fact, hardly anyone uses store-bought dyes, which they consider to be poisonous. In other words, don't expect to see pastel colored eggs in Italy during Easter. The bakers among them start to soak wheat for pastiera or wheat pie, which is a typical Neapolitan dessert during the season and a must-have on many Italian dinner tables on Easter Sunday. Wherever you go in the Naples area during the Easter season, you will be offered a cup of espresso and a slice of pastiera.
There's a reason that Italy starts to get attention from tourists again at Easter. It's because that's when Italy comes back to life. The secret, however, is that Italy's rebirth begins with Lent. Now, you know.
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