Easter has been a much anticipated holiday for me, not only because I chose to give up chocolate for lent (a silly idea, I wouldn’t recommend it), but also because it would be my first experience of another country’s Easter celebrations. Okay, so it’s not a huge cultural gap, with Italy still being part of Western Europe, but you’d be surprised at how much difference a thousand or so miles makes. Italians don’t, for instance, spread tales of the Easter bunny, nor do they have the consequential Easter egg hunts. Although the chocolate eggs are a long-running tradition, as in Britain, they have only become commercialized in the last couple of years (where as the British media has been profiting for at least ten). Easter Monday is seen as an important holiday in its own right, not just as a day to recover from your chocolate hangover and / or return home after visiting family. Though both the English and the Italian celebrations stem from Christianity and the Spring Equinox, they are clearly different: spending the holidays here has given me an insight into unfamiliar traditions, and it was certainly an Easter to remember.
The Sunday, as is common across most of Italy, was spent with the extended family. – uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins. And in true Italian fashion, a large portion of the day – I’d estimate at least three hours – was spent at the table enjoying traditional Easter dishes. As is the case in England, lamb (agnello, as it’s called here) is the most popular meat dish for this holiday, often accompanied by seasonal vegetables such as asparagus and artichokes. Another popular side is polenta (also used at on other holidays with large meals), a type of boiled cornmeal which has a texture somewhere between stuffing and porridge – admittedly that doesn’t sound that all tasty, but it does make a good addition to roast dinners, if slightly bland (sorry Italians, but safe and onion stuffing beats it by far).
Of course, being in Italy, there was not just one course. Our meal (which I believe was fairly typical) consisted of a vegetable lasagna; followed by the lamb; a cheese course (I will never tire of eating chunks of parmesan); opening and eating of the Easter eggs; and finally a cake course. The cake was a personal highlight, and I recommend trying it if you’re ever in Italy for the Easter period, or can get your hands on some in Britain. Called colomba, it is a type of sponge cake with dried fruit rinds inside. You can find it with different types of icing, but even the basic one is delicious. It is linked with the Easter period both through its cross shape (as seen in the picture), and its name; colomba literally translates as dove, a symbol of peace related to Christianity and the resurrection period. It definitely makes up for Italy’s lack of hot cross buns.
Though Easter egg hunts are not a tradition here, in the aupair spirit of sharing cultures and being generally fun with children, I made a small one for the daughter (of 19 months) and niece (six years old). I probably enjoyed it as much as them: reliving your childhood is one of the many benefits of this job.
As with most holidays in Italy, time with the family clearly plays an important part. However, Easter – or Pasqua – is particular in that friends claim a more vital role. As the expression here goes, “Natale con I tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” – Christmas with your parents, Easter with who you want. Though true that generally Easter Sunday is still spent among relatives, the following Monday, labeled “Pasquetta”, is reserved for picnics or barbeques with friends. I say picnics or barbeques, but in the rare event that it is bad weather you can also gather at someone’s home.
I was fortunate enough to be invited into this tradition, and so spent a day drinking pirlo and beer, playing cards, and eating barbeque food with a group of friends. Truthfully, it all felt rather British at times (exempting the good weather, pirlo and Italian language): barbequing is treasured by us Brits, as can be seen in the influx of multipack burgers and disposable grills in Tescos at the first glimpse of summer. If only we had the weather for it, Pasquetta would be a great traditional to kick off in Britain.
There is unfortunately one downfall to this holiday, however, that should be noted by any tourists spending Easter Monday in Italy: the traffic. A normal half hour drive can be expected to triple in length. The car crowds generally start between four and five in the afternoon, and continue throughout the evening as people return home from parks, gardens and lakesides. Take note that most people will flock towards local natural attractions (in my case, for instance, Lake Garda). So if you are hoping to enjoy the Pasquetta tradition, or are simply travelling that day, plan accordingly to avoid the roads returning from such directions.
Overall, the Italian Easter is as much a celebration as in England, even if they do lack the recovery time that we need (since their summer holidays start only a month or so later, they have only the holiday days as a break, rather than our two weeks). I enjoyed food (lots of it), sunshine, and good company, as much as I would in England. So which Easter wins, English or Italian? Well nothing beats home – but sunny skies, colomba cake and barbeques certainly put up a good fight!