For most of us, Christmas is really the star of the yearly holiday show: besides the obvious draw of presents, it's got the kind of participatory appeal that really manages to catch on, and just enough crossover between Christianity and popular culture so that those celebrating from the sidelines really do feel connected to the starters on the field. It's a time of ugly sweaters and big dinners, and for most a mass or even two.
Easter on the other hand, is another thing altogether. In my family in New York it was the time that our most profound guilt complexes came out for air, expunged as it were by the intrepid Lent sacrifices that usually involved us having to give up something awesome for a time period and not quite knowing why. Sure, there was some fine eating to be had particularly in the form of macaroni pie or timballo, a maelstrom of long pasta and lard (though now its Crisco) that we would eat on Easter Saturday before the obligatory Easter Ham.
The thing is, Easter as a commercial holiday is sort of a hard sell; sure, the bunnies and eggs are great and they probably test well with kids (well, unless they are these bunnies) but there is always a looming sense of sacrifice that hangs over Easter. It's an important holiday, to be sure, because its full of a distant kind of repentance that makes us feel ever so slightly guilty tucking into that giant ham roast or our third chocolate bunny.
Because here's the undeniable thing: Easter as we celebrate it now is always and at least in some way linked to the very seriously bad moment when everyone's favourite meme Jesus was condemned to death by the world's most famous germaphobe and handwasher Pontius Pilate, nailed to a cross, and left to die in one of the very most difficult stories to greeting card up that there has ever been. I mean, a very large bit of it has to do with betrayal, suffering, and repentance.
However, here in Italy and especially in Tuscania, Easter is not so much a one off celebration and excuse to eat copious amounts of chocolate (though there is that). Instead, it is one of the most fascinating windows into Catholic rituals and is observed with a surprising amount of respect and reverence. We saw our neighbours, friends and colleagues with a look on their faces that seemed to invoke a tradition they keep carefully preserved, like a wedding gown passed down through generations that gets folded and unfolded with precious care. Importantly, its not nostalgic; its something different, something more.
Throughout the week leading up to Easter signs abound: we saw our home and the restaurant where we worked blessed by a priest (well, almost; we didn't quite understand what was happening so the priest didn't actually get a chance to bless our apartment) and church attendance seemed to be building up to a particular crescendo. That apex was the Good Friday procession, which takes over the centro storico of Tuscania and transports it back to another time, when wearing hoods was kind of like, a thing to do.
(For the record, the hoods are supposed to leave the penitent anonymous and the tradition existed long before those other guys started using hoods to disguise themselves to get away with committing crimes that the light of day would not have wanted seen. Talk about jumping the shark.)
I will not lie, and not only because we're sort of doing that penitent and humble thing: it is a bit terrifying to see this procession for the first time, and I can't quite imagine being a child during it (but then again, I used to cry at the Disneyland night parade and fireworks show so I'm not a great example). At the same time, it is one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen; it never ceases to amaze me how conviction (of any kind) gives people untold reserves of strength and endurance. Imagine that people walk a course through this medieval town over ancient stones, their bare feet dragging an increasing weight of chains behind them over a distance that is likely more than a kilometer long.
All around the town are the echoes, the eerie sound of the chains scraping against the pavement and it feels like something is getting right down into the heart of you.
The men are followed by a marching band and a queue of women dressed in black who held long candles and bowed their heads. And though we recognized some of these women and even knew them, it felt like quite a different thing: we saw Teresa running up to join the crowd before the procession began and we waved, but when we saw her again at her place in the line it felt right to leave her alone. I gave Paola the grocer a goofy smile and wave and temporarily forgot where we were, and her smile made it alright while reminding me that this was not the time for a chat. It was a strange time, though not a bad time; it was somber and somehow felt like it should be that way.
And you know it was a funny thing: I don't think I've ever seen so many people out on the streets in the old center of the town yet I don't think I've ever heard it so quiet, either. Apart from the sound of the marching band there were few conversations. People wanted to look, to witness and perhaps to feel a part of this, to fulfill that obligation that lingers within them and brings them all out together.
But here's the thing, as deeply ingrained and important as those rituals are, they seemed to give way to a rare and diffuse lightness that permeated every corner of Tuscania. The next day, we all noticed how happy people seemed, how everyone's mood felt relaxed, like a subtle hum whose tune everyone knew and could hum along. On our Sunday walk we brought Mark's hot cross buns to our friends, and we felt the sun on us and although neither Mark nor I particularly practice anything we both felt glad that everyone felt glad, and people generally felt glad. Why or how or from what it was due hardly mattered; it was Spring, and it was light, and we were happy.
We were most happy about going for lunch at Nikki and Tiziano's house, where we knew that lunch was going to be epic. We had sadly missed the Easter bread that Nikki made, but it deserves a special mention:
What we did get to enjoy was an Easter lunch made up of two very important things: first, raviolone stuffed with fresh spinach from their garden, ricotta from our friend Francesco Marras and egg yolks from Nikki's chickens in the middle. The second was a pineapple that Tiziano had been growing for three years and decided to carve for the holiday and mix into a pretty great fruit salad. That's almost like waiting for the next winter Olympics.
Easter here in Tuscania is a process, not so user friendly and open book as Christmas but perhaps more worthwhile as a result. Oh, and just so that we're clear, there were some pretty top notch chocolate eggs courtesy of our friends at the Belle Helene.
As they say on Easter Monday, all's well that ends well!