Patron Saints and bonfires – an evening of mixed feelings …

30 March, 2012

Piazza S. Andrea is a tiny irregularly shaped area, no more than 30 metres long and 15 wide, reached via a narrow laneway from one of the city’s main squares, Piazza S. Domenico.  Despite its size, and its proximity to the large Church of S. Domenico, this little square once contained three churches. It  is still dominated by the elegant, recently restored baroque facade of one of them.  It’s also home to a rather chic restaurant, generally considered to be one of Palermo’s best.* 

Interesting as its past may be, however – and evocative and pleasurable as summer dining in the shadow of the church undoubtedly can be – this little square has seen better days.  Now, at least in the daytime, it’s chaotic and noisy, a jumble of erratically parked cars, building equipment, and rubbish skips.  And any spare space is likely to be taken over by local boys kicking a football – with little regard for passers-by.  

On a recent Sunday morning, however, the square was surprisingly bare.  Everything had been removed – all cars were gone, there were no rubbish skips in sight, and, most surprising of all, the paving stones appeared to have been swept clean.  In the centre, a huge wooden bonfire was being prepared – mostly, from what I could see, by a group of young boys.   It was 18 March, the day before the Feast of S. Giuseppe.    

Patron Saints and their festivals have long been important in this part of the world – and S. Giuseppe (St. Joseph) is one of Sicily’s Patron Saints.  According to legend, he saved the people of Sicily during the Middle Ages, when there was a severe drought, crops were failing and people were dying of starvation.  In desperation, they prayed to him, promising that if he answered their prayers they would prepare a feast, to be shared by all, rich and poor.  St. Joseph heard their prayers.  The rains came, the land was fertile again, and ever since, a special feast has been held on  19 March, and bonfires lit the evening before.     

As with many other Christian traditions, the lighting of bonfires in honour of St. Joseph seems to have beeny superimposed onto an earlier pagan rite – possibly an agrarian purification rite, or a celebration of the ending of Winter and the beginning of Spring.  Now, however, it is firmly established as part of the celebrations honouring St. Joseph. 

That afternoon, while the huge pile of wood stood untouched in the square, waiting for evening, it occurred to me that I had never given much thought to Joseph.  He doesn’t exactly have a leading role in the story of the nativity: that is very definitely reserved for Mary and her baby, Jesus.  Given his position on the sidelines, I wondered how he might have felt – and then whether modern fathers might sometimes feel a certain affinity with him.  Joseph is, however, one of the Christian Church’s major Saints, his role as protector of Mary and Jesus recognised as one of great importance.  He is Patron Saint of the Catholic Church itself, of workers, particularly carpenters, and of several countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, and regions, including Sicily. 

 Whether by accident or design I don’t know, but when evening came on 18 March, the lights in the little streets surrounding Piazza S. Andrea weren’t working, and everything was unusually dark until, at about 10 o’clock, the fire was lit.           

When I got there, the flames were already leaping high in the air, almost to the top of the church, sending huge showers of brilliant sparks into the blackness.  The heat at the edge of the square was intense.       

There is something tremendously exhilarating about bonfires, their light, heat and movement, something primitive and awe-inspiring – and frightening as well. The whole of the square was illuminated with a light that, possibly because of the surrounding blackness, seemed brighter than daylight.

As the flames reduced and the embers began to gleam that intensely pure and vibrant molten orange that exists nowhere else, except perhaps in a rising sun, I imagined how it might have been in the past, when the passing of winter had a significance it no longer has for most people, and gratitude to St Joseph was more deeply felt.

                                       *            *            *            *

I’m not entirely sure why, but that evening I didn’t have the sense that this was part of any living tradition, except superficially.  It wasn’t because, as sometimes happens, it was being carried on purely for the benefit of tourists.  There weren’t any tourists.  And even some of the processions that are now carried on, at least in part, because of their appeal  for tourists, continue to have genuine involvement that keeps them alive.    

The crowd, which wasn’t large, was mostly young, and not many of the people living close to the square seemed to be there.  People stood around idly chatting, children ran here and there, and as the heat receded, some young boys entertained themselves by running past the fire along the edge of the church shielding their faces from the burning timber.  But there didn’t seem to be any active participation or communal spirit, and gradually people began drifting away.

I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but I wasn’t expecting it to be like this.  I had read that, traditionally, when the fire is about to go out, people leap over the dying embers and women sing hymns to S. Joseph.  It may be that I simply didn’t stay long enough, but it didn’t seem likely that anything like that would happen.  I couldn’t help feeling that, here at least, 18 March had been little more than an excuse for a bonfire.      

And something was puzzling me.  How was it that the piazza had been so efficiently freed of cars, rubbish skips, everything?  Who had organised the bonfire?  Who had authorised it?  Who was in charge and was it safe?   It had all just seemed to happen – and with an efficiency that’s not often in evidence.

The evening left me with mixed feelings: exhilaration from the bonfire itself –  the immensity of it in that small space, its intense heat and dramatic light –  but also a  feeling of emptiness and uncertainty.  I’d taken part in something  that seemed to me to lack purpose or spirit, and something I hadn’t really understood.   

It may be just that here, as everywhere else, customs are changing.  Certainly, I’m aware that, as a foreigner, I am often struggling to understand what is going on.    

  •   Readers of Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily will remember the Sant’Andrea Restaurant, although it is much changed since he wrote about it.      

3 Responses to “Patron Saints and bonfires – an evening of mixed feelings …”

  1. richmondrambles Says:

    Bonfires like that remind me of the excitement of Guy Fawkes Day (not not allowed in this ‘politically correct’ country. It certainly cleaned up the rubbish even if only for a few days. Perhaps Anthony Robbins (The Power Within) could use if for fire walking!

  2. Sally Field Says:

    All very strange …

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