You don’t actually need to be religious to enjoy some religious activities in Sicily.
Like all of Italy, the greatest treasure houses of art are the churches and cathedrals, so you should essentially regard them as free art galleries. If you look in the corners you will often see signs, outlining the lives of the artists whose work you will see around you on the walls, whose other masterpieces may be in famous galleries around the world.
Every village – and parish in the larger towns – has a patron saint, to whom their church is dedicated. On the days around this saint’s sacred day, they take the statue outside for a religious parade, and also celebrate secular activities with marching bands, stalls full of nuts and traditional sweets, and other entertainments. These festivals are different in every village, and one of the highlights of the year for the locals. They are far too numerous to list and Sicilians typically make last-minute changes to the timetables anyway, but always jump at the chance to join in one of these festivals as they are one of the quintessential experiences of Sicilian culture.
The festivals always begin with a few fireworks, set off very early in the morning to alert the saint and God to the fact that something in their honour is about to take place. This creation of very loud noises at the start and end of religious festivals is atradition handed down directly from the ancient Romans, who has special troupes of trumpeters and drummers to do the job.
I have tried many times to record the amazing troupes of Sicilian drummers, and never been able to do them justice. They are extraordinarily skilled, and often play in groups of about three to five with no other instruments, yet they create rhythyms that take control of your heardbeat, deep noises that make your guts vibrate and the adrenaline that flows through you makes you feel you cold conquer the world. They are often young boys adn they start learning at a very early age those who become good drummers practise obsessively. I personally think Sicilian drummers are one of the magnificent cultural traditions most tragically overlooked in all the world.
If you make it to a vilage festival, you can tell them that from me!
VISIT THE BLACK MADONNA OF TINDARI
The black Madonna statue of Tindari was already a precious antique when she washed up on Sicily’s eastern shore in medieval times. Having survived multiple Tunisian pirate attacks, and three churches, she now lives in a beautiful new church specially built for her and opened by Pope John Paul II.
GO TO CASTELBUONO AND EAT MANNA
You may have read about the Biblical manna which fell from the sky without really understanding what it was. It is the sap of a tree which drips out and forms crystallised candy, indigenous throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East which now survives only in one region of Sicily.
You could also find out what it really means in the bible when the Israelites had to live on wild olives, for these little olives are small and hard adn easy to find in Sicilian parks and wild areas. If you pick a few you will find out just how horrifically bitter they taste, and realise one would have to be facing death from starvation to attempt to eat them.
ATTEND THE NATIVITY PLAY IN TERMINI IMERESE
I found this nativity play so astonishing and so moving that I think would be worth specially booking a holiday to Sicily at Christmas to be able to experience it. Not speaking Italian will by no impediment at all to your enjoyment.
Notice I do not just say “see” it, because it is performed around the streets of the entire medieval town, and you the audience become part of it. You will be the citizens of Israel during the Roman occupation, you will attend the Hebrew wedding of Mary and Joseph, you will be scared and harassed by Roman soldiers as you shop, chivvied to register your name in the census along with Mary and Joseph as they travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and refused entry to the inns and houses as you wander around looking for a place to sleep. You will stop to pray in a medieval church and you will finally settle down among the donkeys and sheep as you wait for Mary to give birth to the Messiah.
The actors are the citizens of Termini Imerese and they do this as an act of religious devotion – they are not paid. You will be invited into their homes and churches.
Book tickets in advance online, because people come from all over Sicily and internationlly for this, and wear comfy shoes because you will be walking around for several hours.
LEARN ABOUT THE CULT OF THE BEHEADED PEOPLE
There is a church in Palermo which was once centre of a Christian cult, in which people prayed to the souls of people who had been executed by beheading. This was at a time of extreme corruption under Spanish rule, and the beheadings were ususally politically motivated. The people who praye to innocent decapitated victims appealed to their special powers as martyrs, to help them overcome their own injustices.
The church is not one of the most aesthetically remarkable in Palermo, but the story behind it most certainly is. It stands in a street called the Via dei Decollati (Street of the beheaded ones) in which the open graveyard for the decapitated bodies once lay.
VISIT THE NATIVITY PLAY IN CAMMARATA
This is a different kettle of fish, and more or a reconstruction of traditional medieval life in Sicily made up of real people engaging in traditional crafts. It is ideal for children. Audience participation is encouraged.
Oh, and they give you stuff to eat as you walk around.
JOIN PALERMO’S JULY FESTIVAL OF SAINT ROSALIA, OR VISIT HER CAVE-CHURCH
Saint Rosalia is the patron saint of Palermo. There used to be four other saints but they were all fired when the plague came and they failed to cure it. Saint Rosalia did cure it, and so she became the new patron saint. Here’s the story:
The people of Palermo still love Rosalia so much they call her the Santuzza, or “the cute little saint”. They celebrate her festival in July in Palermo, over a period of several days. This is the time for people to make pilgrimages up to her sanctuary in a cave at the top of Mount Pelegrino in bare feet or on their knees as acts of devotion.
This place is amazing to visit at any time of year, as it is a baroque church front built across the entrace to a drippy cave.
There is a religious festival and, as the finale, the secular day of celebrations with fireworks and carnival-style floats. The traditional food to eat is snails (called babbaluci) and the fireworks display is not to be missed; Sicilian fireworks are stunning anyway, but for their Santuzza they spend enough money to make sure even Chinese New Year comes second!
ATTEND MASS IN PALERMO CATHEDRAL
Mass in Palermo Cathedral is another major experience. It is the only cathedral in the world with a passage of the Koran carved into one of its external walls and paintings of Moorish hunters and belly dancers painted on its ceiling.
Attending Mass at Palermo Cathedral could be a fairly unique experience. This cathedral contains the first ever statue erected in honour of English Saint Thomas a Beckett, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral. He spent a number of years living in Sicily, where he was dearly loved by the entire population.
Palermo cathedral had a hole drilled into one side of the vast cupola by a scientist a couple of centuries ago, which meant he could turn the entire thing into a colossal sundial. It works as a calendar all year round, and maps the different constellations used by astrologers. Look for a brass line set into the floor at a jaunty angle with your star sign somewhere along it.
ATTEND MASS IN MONREALE, THE ARABIC CATHEDRAL
Just outside Palermo, in the charming little town of Monreale, lies possibly the most beautiful – and certainly the most exotic – cathedral in Europe.
Monreale Cathedral was built by King William II of Sicily in 1174. The architecture is Moorish Arabic, the interior is late Byzantine, and the layout is a fusion of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox convention.
SPEND EASTER IN A VILLAGE MADE OF BREAD
The people of San Biagio Platano, a village in south-western Sicily, have celebrated Easter every year since the 1700’s by decorating their streets with arches and towers made of bread. The entire community spends three months turning the place into a gingerbread village.
I can guarantee you this will be the most beautiful, unique and literally magical Easter of your life.
VISIT SAINT BENEDICT, THE AFRICAN MIRACLE-PERFORMER
Saint Benedict was the victim of a racist attack when he was young, but this only led to his becoming a monk and soon being the point of reference and adviser to priests and archbishops.
ATTEND MASS IN AN UNDERGROUND CATHEDRAL MADE OF SALT
The salt cathedral of Racalmuto was carved out of the salt mine for workers to attend mass when they were stuck underground for a few days. If I were being exploited in such abject conditions of slave labour I think I too would feel the need to turn to religion as my only reason to live.
You can still attend mass here occasionally, but it is not easy to get in so you need to go there in person to find out when it is open. You will not find any details in guide books, but this website in Italian has contact details. You can pre-book a tour on the last wednesday of each month.