Carnival in Sicily

Carnival, an ancient pagan festival that has its origin probably in two Hellenistic and Athenian festivals. One, in honor of Isis, was held in early March, the another one, in honor of Dionysus, in late February.

Celebrated in the week before the beginning of Lent, the term originates from the Latin "carnem levare", i.e. the prohibition to eat meat during the ecclesiastical period of Lenten. It is the feast of fun, gaiety, disguise, glitz, born from the feeling of escape from a period of penance and the consequent fasting. With the recurring mask, the big man that flocks on the hearse symbolizes the end of the previous year and dying takes all evil away.

The city streets become worldwide the set of fairs and festivals, parades of floats and masks, confetti and streamers, reaching the top of transgression on the day of Shrove Tuesday. Pulcinella, Harlequin, Brighella, Pantalone, Balanzone, these are Carnival’s most famous Italian masks. In Sicily, where Carnival’s origins date back to 1600, the most typical masks are those of Jardinara (the gardeners), that of Varca, most known in the province of Palermo, and that of the brigands and the cavallacciu (little horse), popular in Catania.

Other masks, parody of the greatest exponents of the upper social classes, are the representations of the doctors (dutturi), the barons (baruni) and abbots (abbati), but also the mask of the old woman (Vecchia di li fusa) formerly born in the County of Modica, who is the symbol of the Carnival’s death. Several cities in Sicily have famous Carnivals as that of Palazzolo Acreide in the province of Syracuse, whose tradition is very old. Until the ‘60s, they were used to organize in the two main squares the all nights fests (vagliuna) with the box office, where it was held the play "sottonovanta" and where they danced.

Today, during Carnival people dance in squares and nightclubs, during the festivals of sausage, of trouts and cavatieddi, and in big parades of floats and masked groups, especially on Sunday and on Tuesday before the Ash Wednesday. Also in Bronte, in the province of Catania, used to parade "Laddatori", the local masks representing the poorer classes of the city. Every year we also find the city streets full of floats and masked groups, as in Paternò, nearby Catania, but you can’t see women inviting men to dance, all dressed in black cloaks and masks.

Even during the Carnival festivities held in Taormina, you can see mask passing through the beautiful city streets, parades of floats on Sunday and on the Mardi Gras and every evening, in the square of the tourist center in the province of Messina, they organize parties with dancing, singing competitions and games. In Termini Imerese, near Palermo, in addition to the various dances you can see the burning of two puppets of  the nannu (grandpa) and the nanna (grandma), which symbolically concludes the party. In Mezzojuso, province of Palermo, during Carnival we can attend an event, whose origins date back to the 17th century, which takes place in the public square, "Il Mastro di Campo" (the yeld master), played by about 90 characters wearing costumes that hark back to the XV c. and that tells the love story between the Mastro di Campo and the Queen.

Among the most known in Sicily, the Carnival of Sciacca, in the province of Agrigento, has old origins dating back to 1800. For the creation of allegorical floats and masks, whose parade begins on Saturday and ends on the Fat Tuesday, are involved artisans, sculptors and architects. During the Festival you can taste the typical dishes prepared for this event, wine and sausages, Macaroni with tomato sauce and cannoli filled with ricotta cheese. During the Carnival of Belpasso, neraby Catania, the usual parade of floats is preceded by the recital of the local dialectal poets. In Chiaramonte Gulfi, in the province of Ragusa, on Monday evening they prepare the sausages for the Festival. At Saponara, province of Messina, during the parade of the masked groups, we can admire the typical figure of the Bear, made using goat leathers.

In Corleone, near Palermo, in addition to the usual parade of floats, on the Mardi Gras takes place the burning of the puppet of the nannu, dolled up with a necklace of sausages and brought back by the symbol of the evil, the Riavulicchio, who symbolizes the rebirth of this holiday, not celebrated for over thirty years and reborn in the ‘90s. During the trophy of the neighborhoods, they award the best cart or masked group. In Novara di Sicilia, in the province of Messina, they play the Majorcan game, during which teams throw along a path the maiurchèa, a typical pecorino cheese. On the Mardi Gras, during the Festival of the Majorcan, you can taste cheeses, homemade Macaroni topped with pork sauce and sprinkled with Majorcan cheese. On the Carnival Sunday they organize games and prizes for all children.

In the province of Catania, the Carnival of Acireale is the theater of marvels: masks, confetti, lights, flowers, music and a special human warmth. The beautiful streets and squares of the historic centre of Acireale are the ideal setting for a show that reaches its climax with parades of floats, through which the craftsmen express their wit and imagination stimulating other people’s lives. The oldest document about the Carnival of Acireale dates back to 1594, when there was the habit of playing with pulling oranges and lemons. In the 17th century in Sicily appeared a new mask with definable features: the Abbatazzu, the abbot, also called Pueta Minutizzu, the thin poet. This person used to mimick noble or ecclesiastical people, carrying a large book, hence pretending to read satirical and screwing banters.

If we go back in time, we can date back the modern Carnival to the events occurred in 1693. As a result of the earthquake, it was forbidden in that year every Carnival practice and this marked the fracture line between the Carnival of the '600 and that which will rise in the '700. In the 18th century this old tradition was revived, joined with new masks, like the Baruni (barons),  intending to make fun of the aristocracy, the Manti (mantels), costume with a lot of frills that had the only aim to let people to remain anonymous. The 21st century is the century of cassariata (charts parade), that is the parade of the noble carriages (from Latin landaus), who used to throw people multicolored sweet confetti. With the passing of time, these noble landaus with the nobles were "undermined" by that made of papier-mâché .

In 1880 in Acireale were build the first wagons of papier-mâché. Since that moment Acireale has maintained this tradition using various construction sites carried out by willing craftsmen, who make more and more manicured wagons. In 1930, for the first time, appear cars adorned with flowers. In the ‘50-'60s they put near to each other floats with smaller cars decorated with flowers, like mini-wagons known as "lilliput", on which there is always a driving child.

From 1970 to 1995 "The most beautiful Carnival in Sicily" has perfected its features becoming more impressive, especially more refined in the construction of floats (more and more sophisticated and coloured) and flower floats (bigger and bigger), reaching the level of importance of the first ones. In 1996, for the first time, Acireale has the National Lottery with Viareggio and Putignano. This was the opportunity for "The most beautiful Carnival in Sicily" to purchase a national dimension. (Source: municipality of Acireale).

It does not miss the gastronomic tradition related to this events. Among the desserts there are the chiacchiri (chatters) - a thin fried sheet with lots of powdered sugar –, the castagnole and the Zeppole - round pancakes filled with cream –, the so called Turkish heads, which also contain raisins and are produced in area of Modica, and the traditional Pignoccata, prepared with flour, sugar, egg yolks, and a pinch of salt. The first courses are Macaroni with meat sauce or maccarruna di sdirrimarti, traditional pasta kind in the County of Modica, or the most common maccarruna ca sasizza (with sausage), prepared with pork rinds sauce or with tomato sauce. The vegetables soup is prepared with potatoes, shelled, dried beans, onion, parsley, diced pork bacon, pepper and salt, the  pork meat stew and the sausage, are all prepared on the Mardi Gras day.