Written by Marisa Garreffa
Some call it the best party in town. A nostalgic children’s holiday that has been revived and is most well known for the parade of lanterns through the streets. In my first year living in Florence, my housemate delivered me a lantern on the morning of the festival, to introduce me to the annual tradition. When he found it still intact and on display in our hallway at the end of the day, he was horrified. “But no! This is against the festival. I must burn it, so you really feel a part of the celebrations.” You can imagine my reaction, watching my gift burn in the garden…
So what’s it all about?
The festival is held to celebrate the birthday of the Madonna, to whom the large Basilica of Santissima Annunziata is dedicated. In the past, hundreds of peasants and farmers from surrounding areas would make the long journey on foot into the city to celebrate the Festa della Madonna. They wouldn’t waste the trip by coming empty handed. Instead, they used the opportunity to bring products such as cheeses, honey, seasonal vegetables, and hand-made items to sell at an enormous agricultural market/fair held in the piazza.
In order to arrive on time for the religious services, many began their journey well before the break of dawn. The farmers needed lanterns to light the way, and these were carried at the end of stick and made of candles protected by a frame of thin cloth. The tradition continues in its contemporary form today and, on the night of September 7th, Florentines and other “pilgrims” (mostly children) carry paper lanterns on sticks as they make their way through the streets of Florence, from Piazza Santa Croce to Piazza Santissima Annunziata. Speeches are made in the square, followed by a fun street party.
As for the “tradition” of destroying the lanterns, expect to see older children blowing spit wads (or tiny balls of wet clay) at the paper lanterns through a tube called cerbottana. This can be traced back to when the peasants would make the pilgrimage wearing their best clothes, but as they were poor and overdressed by city standards, they were mocked and laughed at. These days, while some Florentine children make their own, more beautiful, lanterns in coloured tissue paper to follow along with the parade, others target the paper lanterns with spit wads in an attempt to furtively hit them, making the candles fall over and setting the lantern ablaze. It is common for most lanterns to be burned by the end of the night!
The main party can be found in Piazza Santissima Annunziata on the evening of September 7. But first, don’t miss the beautiful sunset display of floating lanterns on the Arno, Festina Lente, now in its fourth year. “Magic lanterns gliding on the river at sunset. Lanterns that carry our thoughts that will be entrusted to the current of the Arno”.
At 5.30 pm, children will be admitted to the “Lab for Expressions of Desires” and the organization will provide 100 lanterns for children to decorate creatively. At sunset, the artists with their families can embark on rafting boats and take part in the launch of the biodegradable floating lanterns.
You can find more details here.