Festa di Santa Rosalia (St. Rosalie Festival)

 

Like every Italian city, Palermo has always had its patron saint. Fact is, it wasn’t the famous saint Rosalia until 1624. The town had been struggling to survive the plague: no prayer seemed to work, until Rosalia appeared in the dreams of a man who was told where to find the earthly remains of the saint. Her bones were indeed found in a nearby cave and promptly paraded as they were taken to the biggest church of the town. Then, in a real miracle, the plague ended forever. It is understandable that from that day on saint Rosalia was appointed patron saint.

The cult of the saint is deeply felt to this day. The mid-July evening parade to celebrate her miracle is an incredibly huge event involving the whole city. The celebration has evolved through the ages with larger and larger floats carrying a giant statue of Rosalia towards the sea, following a route that symbolizes the renewal of life. The float is currently over 25 meters tall, and it is preceeded and followed by a top-notch street show of dancers, acrobats, musicians and other artists. The procession ends with the largest fireworks show in the Western emisphere: a real feast for the eyes that is often televised worldwide. This is also a way to partially recoup the incredibly high cost of the event: the street show actually has to go on a world tour in order to earn the money for next year’s event.

Citizen participation is very heartfelt. The procession is accompanied by a semi-religious litany in Sicilian dialect extolling the virtues of the saint to which thousands and thousands of people sing along; families and restaurants prepare a traditional series of local foods each one of which symbolizes one specific event in the life or Rosalia or the town. Even more importantly, professional brotherhoods compete for raising as much money as they can for the celebration – and here lies another interesting side to the whole affair.

It is an open secret that some of these brotherhoods have historically been just a public front for the many mafia families ruling over Palermo and Sicily in general. Their pomp and even the order in which they appeared in the parade were a not-so-subtle way to remind citizens of who was really in charge, and of their power. Starting in 1994, however, the new official policy of openly acknowledging the existence of the mafia and fighting it as a dangerous criminal organization (previously it was downplayed as an almost benign “necessary evil”) turned things around. Now the saint Rosalia procession is an occasion for each person to publicly make a stand against organized crime, siding with fellow citizens under the banner of the saint to eradicate this new plague.