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Ferragosto: history, traditions (and curses) of one of the most beloved holidays in Italy

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Originally written on August 15, 2020. Updated 2023

Celebrated on August 15, the so called Ferragosto may well be considered the height of the Italian summer: many Italians still take their summer vacation around this time, with the cities traditionally emptying and the beaches filling up (at least, until few years ago).

Ferragosto, which today coincides with the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary (a Catholic dogma established in 1950 by Pope Pius XII), is a holiday that goes back to Roman emperor Augustus’ times. Several festivals took place during the month of August to celebrate the harvest, and in 18 BC, Augustus himself introduced the “Feriae Augusti” (the festival of emperor Augustus), to connect them all and provide a longer period of rest after the harvest, a time of intense agricultural labor.
During the ‘Augustali’ celebrations, horse races were organized across the Roman Empire, and beasts of burden (including oxen, donkeys and mules), were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. Such ancient traditions remain almost unchanged today, like Siena’s Palio dell’Assunta, taking place on August 16. Indeed, the name “Palio” comes from the pallium, a piece of precious fabric which was the usual prize given to winners of the horse races in ancient Rome.

It became a custom for the workers to wish their employers “buon ferragosto” and they would get a monetary bonus. This became law during the Renaissance throughout the papal states.
The popular tradition of taking a trip at Ferragosto was introduced with the Fascist regime.
Mussolini, in the second half of the 1920s, began organizing hundreds of trips through its recreational organizations, even setting up the “People’s Trains of Ferragosto”, made available at discounted prices. The initiative gave the chance to less affluent people to visit Italian cities or spend time at seaside and mountain resorts for one to three days. The offer was limited to 13, 14 and 15 August and comprised two options: the “One-Day Trip”, within a radius of 50-100 km, and the “Three-Day Trip” within a radius of about 100–200 km.
Food and board was not included, this is why even today Italians associate packed lunches and barbecues with this day.
The tradition has continued to this day and, among beach games, water balloons, bonfires and dancing, Ferragosto has become a true celebration of summer and very beloved from the major part of italians. Including the traditional Ferragosto lunch, usually a barbecue or picnic with family and friends.

And, in any case, among all the citizens, for sure some will choose a beach, near or far, and will challenge the traffic, the heat and the immense queues at the toll booths, to be able to dive into the sea. Actually, however, this is a practice that somewhere in southern Italy is not recommended.
The reason?
According to a widespread popular belief, you should not to bathe because on this very day the sea would be infested with evil spirits who would wait for the unsuspecting swimmers to kidnap them and drag them into the abyss!
Others associate the curse of August 15 precisely with its dual role as a religious festival.
Famous is the saying “Allu Ferragosto l’Assunta ne vole uno pe’ idda“, and this means that every August the Madonna dell’Assunta brings a soul up to heaven with her. The link between the virgin Mary and the sea has been considered very particular since ancient times. According to some ancient preachers, Mary would take her own name from the sea. In the context of religious iconography, the image of the Madonna on the sea often recurs: among all we remember the one with the title of “Stella Maris”, invoked by those who are closely linked to the sea, sailors, but also fishermen.

In many villages different legends are told about lovers drowned on this day. In some places they are called Sofia and Giuseppe, in others they are Margherita and Antonio. For some they are newlyweds, for others just two lovers, but the story is always the same: it is said that on August 15 the two guys swam to the Otranto Channel, where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian Sea.
They were swept away by a large wave that submerged and killed the girl, while the young man managed to save himself and return to shore. For years he no longer entered the water, but on the day of the Assumption he used to go along the shore to address a prayer to his beloved. One year, however, an anomalous and unexpected wave hit the man who leaned over the cliff, like every year, to pray. This is just a legend, but as usual, there is a truth behind it: actually, in mid-August, these stories are told to keep children away from water as the risks associated with bathing are greater. The typical lunch of this day is almost always more abundant than on other days, and the greater influx of bathers increases the possibility to lose sight of most reckless children, and so-called water balloons are also widespread which can turn into a game dangerous, especially for the little ones.

Cursed and legends apart, up until around 10 years ago, 90% of companies, shops and industries closed but, with the growing influence from other non-Catholic countries, and the fact that closing an entire country’s industry for a whole month meant an incredible loss of money and backlog of work, most companies now close for around two weeks, forcing all workers to take imposed vacation.
Since Ferragosto is also a Catholic feast, established in the 5th century A.D., the day is a national holiday in Italy.

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