If I Had a Hammer: Carnival in Sicily

Everywhere in the street was a mob of Sicilians waving long-handled hammers and at any opportunity bringing them down on the heads of passersby indiscriminately. Victims did their best to respond in kind, often chasing down assailants through the milling crowd. It seemed the entire city had left their homes to face the chilly evening, and it was well after dark and there was no sign of order being restored. Not to be left behind I purchased a hammer from a vendor on the street corner and started whacking.

It was Carnevale after all. The plastic hammers squeaked harmlessly like infants’ toys and the narrow streets sounded like they were filled with crickets. Gangs of children, many in costumes, worked their ways through the adults spraying each other with silly string or a white foam that resembled shaving cream. It was all part of a colorful and festive tradition that blends pagan and Catholic traditions. The term Carnival comes from the Latin “carne” which means meat and “vale” which means farewell. During the period of Lent, the solemn forty days leading up to Easter, Catholics were not supposed to eat meat. Mardi Gras, (Martedi Grasso) the day before Ash Wednesday the first day of Lent, means Fat Tuesday, and for good reason. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet. Carnival became a sort of final hurrah before the more reflective religious season.

Acireale, a small city just outside of Catania near Sicily’s east coast, is home to “the most beautiful Carnival in all of Sicily.” But Acireale is beautiful in its own right. The Baroque architecture, the elegant shops and boutiques along the streets, the cathedral dominating the central piazza, possess all the charm of Sicily and make for a picturesque setting for the celebration. Acireale has been known since antiquity for its thermal baths, tapping into hot waters that take their heat from the same subterranean sources that inspire nearby Mt Etna to spout gases and the occasional lava flow. Many travelers come throughout the year for spa therapy.

Records of the town’s Carnival celebration date as far back as the late 16th century though it is believed the tradition is even older. At one time it consisted of a fruit barrage. Participants threw oranges and lemons at each other, but this practice has long since been abandoned. (But can still be seen in the northern Italian city of Ivrea.) By the 17th century a masked figure had become part of the crowd of revelers, carrying a large book from which he pretended to read and mocking local nobility and church personalities. The tradition grew and spread crossing the centuries to present day’s practice of donning masks and costumes. The event became officially organized in 1929 and beginning with floral decorations, floats—often allegorical in nature—evolved to become an integral part of the celebration soon after the Second World War. The swinging of plastic hammers is a far older tradition from an ancient Roman fertility rite held in February. (The month’s name itself comes from the Latin februa which was a purification feast which began on February 15.) But in those days the Made in China plastic hammer was a Made in Your Barnyard goat’s tail, a symbol of fertility. The object of the game was to chase the local young maidens and give them a tap on the head with the tail thus making them fertile. Perfectly reasonable.

(High school sophomores who did not sleep through the Shakespeare unit on Julius Caesar may remember Mark Antony running a race with a goat tail.)As much as cutting off a goat’s tale sounds charming, I must admit it was the reputation of the elaborate floats that drew me to Acireale. Throughout each day of the festival there are various parades featuring a variety of participants. In the afternoon the school children show off their costumes and schools take part in the parade, and in the evening the festivities are rounded off with live music or cabaret typically beginning around 8:30 or 9 pm. But it is a sight to behold when the stunning allegorical floats come out. Some of flowers, others of papier-mâché, many of them with moving parts, they ride down the main street into the central Piazza del Duomo. And the crowds of both locals and travelers come out to admire creations that took months to complete.

Many of the floats, like the ones centuries ago, mocked the rich and powerful. Italian politicians like Berlusconi and others from around the world were all fashioned in caricature and attached to the bodies of mythological beasts. Music blared from each float as it made its entrance to the main square, paused for its moment in the spotlight, and then took a crawling lap past the cathedral before heading back out on another street. A pirate waved his hooked and turned his massive head from side to side to sneer at the onlookers.

Unlike many Carnival celebrations—those of Rio de Janeiro, or say, Mardi Gras of New Orleans—this was not a drunken revelry. It was a sober crowd (at least in terms of alcohol consumption), and I couldn’t help but think a family crowd. Parents brought their children. What struck me the most (besides the hammers) is that the Italians, not exactly known for their orderliness, ability to form lines, or driving skills, were, in fact, remarkably orderly. As the dazzling floats entered the piazza, spectators remained on the curb giving a wide berth. I felt a bit of a rabble-rouser to step into the middle of the empty street to snap some shots of the next elaborate float—a giant dragon belching smoke—while the Italians held themselves back. That restraint lasted throughout the night (except when the group of Brazilian dancers came through in their sparkling and sexy costumes and then all the men pushed in to get a better look or a good shot with the camera.)

It is not just a feast for the eyes and ears however. Street food is widely available including grilled Italian sausages and roasted Sicilian almonds. Italians don’t have a special season for gelato (Italian ice cream), and don’t seem to mind the chill of winter months. Acireale serves of some of the best. And of course Sicilian cuisine—from fresh swordfish to the best cannoli imaginable—is an attraction any time of year.

If Rio is not your bag of confetti, consider Carnevale Sicilian style. You don’t need to bring a hammer; there’s plenty for sale curbside.

If You Go

The dates for Acireale’s Carnevale are February 15 – March 4, 2014. For more information check the Acireale Carnevale website.

Staying in Sicily? Consider getting a room (or a cave) at a local agriturismo (farm holiday). Check out my article about an agriturismo not far from Acireale.

Or try Carnival on a Caribbean island. See my article and video about Curacao’s celebration.

Kevin Revolinski

Author, travel writer/photographer, world traveler. Writes about travel, hiking, camping, paddling, and craft beer.

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