Puglia has a long and ancient tradition of religious holidays. However the Pasqua (Easter) is probably the most celebrated and loved among the locals; for an entire week the region abandons its modernity to embrace religious rituals of extreme beauty and highly symbolic for the drama that can transmit.
Solemn celebrations are held all across the region and may vary from town to town according to local traditions, believes and historical events that may have marked the local history and are still deep into the spirit of the people.
The Settimana Santa (Holy Week) starts on Domenica delle Palme (Palm Sunday) and ends on Easter Sunday: the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are celebrated in a series of religious events that will include the Palm Sunday, the Sepolcri on Holy Thursday, the Processione dei Misteri on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. These spectacular rituals are extremely emotional and moving and are a truly life experience, even for non-catholic people.
Celebrations will start on Palm Sunday when olive branches are blessed in churches and are taken home as a symbol of peace. In a few towns, a theatrical representation of the Passion of Christ is set out in the streets: actors dressing traditional costumes act representing the last soup, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the last moments of his life.
On the evening of Holy Thursday, the churches in the city prepares the Sepolcri (actually the real name would be altars of repose), an ancient rite already known in the 19th century: the chapel of repose is decorated with offerings, white flowers and candles to celebrate the Blessed Sacrament. The tradition is to visit an odd number of churches and pray at each one. This is also an opportunity to visit churches which are, in some cases, usually closed to the public and only open on this occasion. Among the others we mention the cities of Taranto and Francavilla Fontana (Brindisi Province) where we assist at the pilgrimage of confratelli (respectively called Perdoni and Pappamusci): pilgrims who walk in pairs, slowly and barefoot, through the old town visiting all the churches where they stop to pray. They wear a traditional dress consisting of a long gown and a cap with two holes for the eyes that makes them unrecognizable.
The biggest event is undoubtedly the Processione of Misteri that takes place on Good Friday in all towns with the longest and most famous being held in Taranto (which can last up to 24 hours). Large statues representing the Virgin and the Passion of Christ are carried through the city by the members of religious fraternities; they cover an important role when it comes to organize the procession: each fraternity is in fact responsible for carrying one of the statues like Christ at the Column, Christ in the Garden, Christ at the Calvary and the Dead Christ, Christ with the Crown of Thorns.
Carrying a statue is a privilege and the members of the fraternities win it with an auction where all the proceeds go to charity. The statues are followed by large crowds, older women and barefoot people. Total silence reigns among the crowd and it is broken only by the melancholy and mournful music played by the bands.
Easter Sunday will close the Holy Week, this is the day to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, it is day of joy and happiness, churches are beautifully decorated for the occasion and people will gather together for the mass followed by the traditional family lunch.
We want to close reminding about a popular ritual very well-known particularly in Salento, the Quaremma (a term derived from French which means Lent). The Quaremma is a puppet that marks the beginning of Lent and the end of Carnival, it is hung along the streets, on balconies and terraces of most of the town and depicts an old, ugly and thin woman, dressed in black in mourning for the death of Carnival. She holds a wire wool and a spindle on her right hand to symbolize the industriousness and the time that goes by. In her left hand she holds a bitter orange with seven chicken feathers stuck in it, indicating the number of Sundays left from Lent to Easter Sundays.
Each week a feather is pulled from the orange till Easter Sunday when the Quaremma is hung on a pole and burnt to symbolize the proclamation of the Resurrection.