The 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.
Each 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.
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.