HOLIDAY FOOD – Good Friday Mysteries in Trapani – PART ONE

The people of Trapani call it the ‘Festa dei Misteri’, the Festival of Mysteries. And yet it is a penitential holy ceremony commemorating the Passion of Christ in the saddest days of mourning in the Catholic liturgy.

A long procession of twenty groups of wooden statues is carried along without interruption from the early afternoon of Good Friday until morning the day after. The atmosphere is marked by emotion and solemnity, sorrowful effort and repentance, but also displays solidarity, a proud sense of belonging, comradeship and … conviviality. Yes, because this long ceremony, extending without a break from the afternoon, through the night and into the morning, is accompanied by eating and drinking while contemplating images of suffering in a climate of true celebration.

Many months earlier, the representatives of the ceti, the various trades descending from the old city guilds, go round collecting funds to ensure they have the money to stage a good event: there has to be a band to play music, floral decorations, large candles, payment for those walking in the procession and carrying the statues.

The organization by guilds reveals the mediaeval origins of the festival. The name ‘mysteries’ recalls the sacred representations found in popular forms of theater – the most moving example being the Lament of the Virgin Mary by Jacopone da Todi. But this is Sicily and the baroque, with its Counter-Reformation message forcefully confronting all kinds of religious ritual. Back in the seventeenth century, the Mysteries were rousing people to emotional displays, with flagellants practicing self-mortification around the casacce, the meeting place for religious congregations founded in the mid-thirteenth century in Genoa and Seville.

At the end of the 16th century, in Sicily it was the confraternities who organized the theatrical processions and celebrations of dramatic rituals.

The expression ‘Mystery’ appears not so much to indicate the sacred objects carried in the procession – in this case the groups of wooden statues – as the whole community of people in the ceto, the group staging the performance. And if we go back in time, we might find a connection to the Mysteries of Ancient Rome, esoteric cult practices of Eastern Greek origin inspired by Eleusis or the goddess Isis.

The pagan ritual was probably incorporated into Catholic liturgy gradually, but one thing that remained constant is the presence of food during the celebration. They are days of fasting. And yet around the procession and along the streets, the atmosphere is more like a village festival, with stalls selling sweets, cotton candy and balloons. As usual, zu Ciccino has set up its confectionery stall in Piazza Notai with hisingenious sugar creations, each colored sweet wrapped in a piece of white parchment. When the cold night air begins to chill the hands and faces of those bearing the figures in the procession, sustenance is discreetly proffered from under the canopies to warm them up: grilled sausages, bread and tuna, and particularly wine and spirits, while towards morning solicitous ladies will offer thermoses of hot or cold coffee. The night is long, so young people offer to take a turn at carrying the statues. It is a question of pride and also a way of participating in a special event, almost a way of having fun.

Just a little further on, inside the kitchen of the pastry shop La Rinascente at Via Gatti 3, they are days of intense work. Signor Giovanni is making cassata and cannoli as usual; but the sweet most in demand, and which is handed out to children, are the Easter lambs made of almond paste, with a paper label inscribed INRI, a silver crown and small sweets around – chocolates, different sorts of candy. The lambs have a white wavy fleece made of crunchy almond paste with a soft filling of pumpkin or citron jam.

The scinnuta (descent) of the Mysteries starts from the Chiesa del Purgatorio; the door is opened and it is like lifting the curtain. The crowd has been thronging the barriers for some time: there is the occasional tourist but most of them are local Trapani people for whom the Mysteries are something “you can’t miss” and they make animated comments to each other as if they were at the theater – about the groups, the success of a procession, the music played by the band.

A somber drum roll and the high-pitched repeated sound of the ciaccule marks the beginning of the procession; it is like the amplified sound of a multitude of rattlesnakes. The ciaccule are wooden instruments formed of two moveable parts which knock against a fixed centerpiece when the handle of the instrument is shaken. It is used by the leaders of the statue bearers, the caporali, to indicate when to rest and set off again. Everything has to be perfectly synchronized: lifting the group of statues, taking the first step, stopping and having a rest. Each change of movement is marked by the sound of the ciaccule which, occasionally drifting through the night along the city streets, distorted and shifted by the wind, accentuates the magic atmosphere of the ritual.

Photo by Valter Musso.

Paola Nano works at the Slow Food Press Office.

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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