Horses in Bloom

March 5, 2013 / Events
Scicli, Sicily
cav smiling faceThe festa di San Giuseppe is one of the most colorful in Sicily.  Many towns celebrate with fanciful breads and huge tables laden with sweets of every kind, but in the evening you should head to the town of Scicli for the cavalcata – a parade of horses that are draped in flower-laden cloaks.

Teams of horse decorators compete for cash prizes in several categories, from simple neck adornments to the full bardatura, which includes a cloak and headdress, nearly concealing the horse in flower-laden splendor.

Each horse’s costume is made from lightweight foam rubber, onto which thousands of flowers of the violaciocca variety – a fragrant spring bloom related to the wallflower – are attached in elaborate patterns.  Huge draft horses are used for the event, similar to the type that were once used on farms, where every stable contained a picture of San Giuseppe.

cav rider 41Each horse has one or two riders, often small children whose feet will not reach the stirrups for another 10 years, while the reins are held by men carrying lanterns, who lead the horses through the winding streets. All are wearing the traditional costume of a crisp white shirt topped by a black embroidered vest, a colorful scarf, and either a coppola or a stocking cap.

The significance of this festival was originally a rite of passage from winter to summer, with huge bonfires made of olive branches and vine clippings. It gradually took on a religious significance with prayers to San Giuseppe for a good harvest and a cavalcata that simulated the flight of the holy family into Egypt.

Today the sacred and profane are thoroughly meshed into a colorful festival, though the huge bonfires have been curtailed since the town installed natural gas lines in the streets.

Some locals consider this to be the work of party-poopers, and fondly recall the good old days when they tossed old furniture into the biggest bonfire in the main piazza, and the intense heat melted electrical lines and shop signs. Nowadays the modest bonfires are used for roasting a few sausages, yet the festive spirit remains.

cav kid horse men running

cavalcata boys sheaves dig 599 x 410
cav flank flower s giuseppe

cavalcata man & child bells headress 600 x 463

Anita Iaconangelo

by Anita Iaconangelo

An expert on walking and culinary tours in many areas of Italy, with a special focus on Sicily, Anita Iaconangelo is the founder of Italian Connection Tours and author of the blog Anita’s Italy. She is currently at work on a book entitled Savoring Sicily: A Culinary Quest. 

8 Responses to “Horses in Bloom”

  1. Maria Vallone

    As both my father and brother are named Joseph, the feast of San Giuseppe was always a big deal in our home. My Dad always bought us zeppole as the traditional pastry for that day and we were allowed to break our Lenten fast.
    When I lived in Torino I could not find zeppole anywhere. Could you tell me where that pastry originates from and why it is so popular in New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island (where I live) among other places? Was the origin in Southern Italy or is it an Italo-American concoction?

  2. Scicli is a very magical place. I was there inNovember and apart from a French couple, we were the only “outsiders” there…..just great.

  3. Roseann


    Aren’t Zeppole San Giusieppe and ‘regular’ Zeppole different? That’s what I found in NJ. My family from the New Haven, CT area did fry zeppoles for the Christmas holidays. The soft dough always smelled like Beer to my nose. I LOVE(D) those Zeppoles!

  4. louise

    What a colorful event! I can only imagine the festive atmosphere. Thanks, Anita, for sharing this event ahead of time. Only wish I could rush over to see it. You’ve also opened Pandora’s box about the zeppole. There are a lot of different traditions out there. We need a full report about these heavenly pastry clouds. Samples provided?

  5. as a boy i never really cared much for zeppoli,i thought they were too ‘flourly’ if there is such a word,and i didn’t like getting my fingers all sticky-but what i really loved for st.joseph was the ‘fritters’and the little breads,my grand-mother,my mother and my wife would make them for every feast of san giusieppe and a joke started by my grand mother was to hide a balle of cotton in one of the fritters and watch to see who the innocent soul would bite into it,then we would all laugh-move all the furniture to the side,roll-up the carpet,the mandolins and guitars would come out and dancing thru the night -that was our feast of san guiseppe-those were the days my friends,when we were free and happy youths.

  6. Angela Alongi Catalano

    My Grandparents lived in the Aragona, Provincia Agrigento

    We never heard that St. Joseph Celebration was so Corlorful–how great!

    In America, my hometown, was Rockford, Ill where people
    had “open house” celebrating St. Joseph’s intercession
    in helping restoring the farms with rain!!!!

    In thanksgiving the people opened their homes, for a non-meat
    dinner, using all vegetables, and Pasta “milenisa”
    delicious; made with Sardines, tomato “sucoO’ with Fennel
    Fronds, raisins, pinenuts, using toasted breadcrumbs instead
    of Cheese to remind of the dry soil!

    Of course there are zillion ways of making
    “Froscias” fritattas.,with any vegetable available!
    Desserts Galore,especially
    :Cucidati –fig cookies, watermelon cakes, cream puffs,
    cannoli!!!cookies cookies and fruit!!
    Braided bread coated with sesame seeds (giuguleina)
    On the eve of St. Jo all the homes were open for view!!!!
    (you can decide which one you would like to have dinner!
    It’s really fun and loving to attend!

  7. Anita,
    I love this! Thank you so much for sharing! Seeing traditions (although modified for gas lines :D) observed is such a joy…
    Grazie, Victoria

  8. Linda Pappalardo Ross

    Loved this story of how this feast day is celebrated in Sicily. Every year I look forward to this day and can’t wait for a St. Joseph pastry. We have moved from Long Island to upstate NY near Saratoga and it is very difficult to find this. I have to drive to Albany to get the pastry. All bakeries should get a blog on how to make them and what the tradition is for Italian families.


Leave a Reply