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Buon Ferragosto! – Origins of Italian Ferragosto and How We Celebrate

What is Ferragosto?

Ferragosto is an Italian public holiday. Ferragosto not only refers to the 15th of August, but by extension, the period around it when most people get a holiday from offices, factories, and work in general.

When is Ferragosto?

It takes place on the 15th of August all over Italy – the same day the Catholic Church celebrates the assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven.

Origins of Italian Ferragosto

As well as the religious festival, an older origin of ferragosto is the Feriae Augusti (literally Augustus’ holiday or Augustus’ rest) a Latin name for festivals held by the Emperor Augustus that began in 18 B.C.E. Many popular pagan celebrations were appropriated by the Christian church and ferragosto is no exception.

In reality, the Feriae Augusti  lasted the whole month of August and included a range of festivals and celebrations of the gods – the most important being that of Diana, goddess of the hunt, of animals and nature, which was held on the 13th of August.

The Feriae Augusti come from another Roman tradition – the Consualia, festivals celebrating the end of agricultural work, dedicated to Conso, who, for the Romans, was the god of the earth and fertility.

Festivals and horse races were organized throughout the Roman Empire and working animals that pulled carts and ploughs got a break from toiling in the fields and were adorned with flowers. Agricultural workers would get small amounts of money as a gift from landowners or bosses.

There is also an expression in Italian – dare il ferragosto (literally ‘to give ferragosto’) meaning to give a gift of money or food to one’s employees. Workers would give auguri – greetings or good wishes to their masters and receive something in return.  The custom became so popular during the Renaissance that the Vatican made it obligatory.

The celebrations were assimilated by the Catholic Church around the 7th century and fixed on 15th August, when the Virgin Mary is ‘received’ (assunta) into heaven.

During Fascism, beginning in the 1920s in Italy, it became popular to use the ferragosto holiday to take a train trip on reduced-fare trains. On the days around 15th August, there were special fares for people travelling by train to cities or holiday resorts in Italy. It was a gift to the working populace from their ‘rulers’ (the government) just like the tradition of centuries past. This was known as the gita fuori porta or day trip out.

Thanks to these trips, many working-class Italian families had the opportunity to see the sea, mountains or cities filled with art in their own country for the first time. Obviously, most could not afford to eat in restaurants, so the tradition of taking along a packed lunch was also born.

Ferragosto Celebrations in Italy

Boy hiking on a trail in the Dolomites in Italy.

Today instead of animals it’s humans who get a break from work. Much of the country goes on holiday and schools, factories and offices are closed.

In the past this was true for pretty much everyone. Nowadays, however, things have changed a bit. If you work in tourism, you definitely won’t have ferragosto off. Gone are the days when the country would shut down for a whole month. It became impractical, people couldn’t get anything done and productivity slumped. The month of August – and especially the period around the 15th is, however, still undeniably quiet workwise.

Many Italian families will already be on holiday (if possible) but if not, the most traditional and the nicest thing to do is to go somewhere close by – preferably a very short car journey on minor roads, or even better by bike or on foot.  They’ll bring a picnic and treasure the day with friends. You may even find tiny villages in the South of Italy where the whole village will celebrate together around the local church. In seaside towns, people will organize barbecues and bonfires on the beach.

Heading to the beach for Ferragosto? You may want to read
A Local’s Guide to the Best Beaches Near Lucca
The Best Beaches Near Florence

Special Ferragosto Events

Siena, Italy's Piazza del Campo seen from above during the Palio horse race.
Siena’s Piazza del Campo seen from above during the Palio
  • The Siena PalioSiena. Not on the 15th, but on the 16th of August, the Palio dell’Assunta (Assumption Palio) horse race is held in Siena. The palio, (pallium in Latin) is the banner that was presented to the winner in ancient Roman races. Today it goes to the contrada (town district) whose horse crosses the finish line first in Siena’s main square – Piazza Del Campo.
  • Un Mare di Fuoco – Rimini. Literally a ‘Sea of Fire’. An evening dedicated to the magic of fire with performances by fire-eaters, dancers, and acrobats from all over Italy performing right by the sea. Food, beer, wine and music make it even more fun on a beach under the stars.
  • La Giostra del Saracino – Sarteano. The Saracen Joust of Sarteano is a tournament with an ancient tradition first recorded in the town of Sarteano in the 16th century, but it probably dates back to the time of the crusades. Five knights – the  jousters – representing the five town districts compete for the coveted palio (banner).
  • La Cavalcata dell’AssuntaFermo. Another ‘Assumption’ horse event – the oldest historical commemoration in Italy. It includes parades, religious celebrations and tournaments and has taken place since 1182.
  • Vara di Messina – Messina in Sicily hosts a spectacular procession where a large float with papier-mache figures depicting the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven is pulled through the streets by long ropes.
  • Medieval Festival – Mondavio. If you are planning Ferragosto in the Marche region, then don’t miss the historical re-enactment of wild boar hunting, held every year in Mondavio in the province of Pesaro and Urbino. There are Renaissance-themed dinners and light and sound shows, all in period costume.

Ferragosto Food

Bowl of taralli di ferragosto.
Taralli di ferragosto

Different regions and cities in Italy have some traditional foods that are associated with ferragosto:

  • Taralli di ferragosto Taralli are very popular in the south of Italy, especially in  Campania and Apulia. The best way to describe them is an ‘O’ shaped breadstick. Taralli are usually savory but taralli di ferragosto are sweet, with a glazed coating made of water and sugar and lightly flavored with lemon juice.
  • Margheritine di StresaStresa is my town and its famous little cookies are the margheritine made by a local pastry chef for the first communion of the future Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1857. The Savoy Royal Family liked them so much that they became their traditional ferragosto cookie.
  • Biscotto di Mezz’Agosto Literally ‘a mid-August biscuit’. These are typical of the town of Pitigliano in Tuscany. They are a bit like a doughnut and flavored with wine and aniseed seeds. They were traditionally eaten as a snack by farmers while wheat threshing.
  • Piccione arrostoNow for something savory: ‘Per Ferragosto, piccioni e anitre arrosto’ (‘For Ferragosto, roast pigeons and ducks’) as an old Italian proverb goes. Roast pigeon is a typical ferragosto dish, still widely used in Tuscany but also in other parts of Italy.
  • Zitoni di ferragosto – Another savory specialty from the Campania region and the Amalfi Coast. Zitoni are very long pasta cylinders. They are broken up and cooked with a sauce made of fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and capers. The dish can be eaten as it is or taken on a road trip, after being baked in the oven with buffalo mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

A Ferragosto Legend

As well as the traditional picnic or outdoor grill, lots of people like to go swimming at ferragosto. However, in the south of Italy, superstition has it that you shouldn’t swim on 15th August because evil spirits haunt the waters on this mid-summer day.

In popular tradition, it is believed that every August 15th, Our Lady of the Assumption takes one soul up to heaven with her.

There are various legends of lovers who drowned on the holy day. In some places they are called Sophia and Joseph, in others they are Margaret and Anthony. For some, they are newlyweds, for others just a young couple in love, but the story is always the same.

The story goes that on 15th August, the two young people swam to the Otranto Channel, where the Adriatic Sea meets the Ionian Sea. They were swept away by a huge wave that submerged and drowned the young woman. The young man managed to save himself and returned to shore. For years he never entered the water again, but on Assumption Day he would sit along the shore to say a prayer to his lost sweetheart.

One year, on ferragosto, an enormous wave hit the man as he was leaning over a cliff to pray as he did each year and he was swept away to join his loved one!

Travel at Ferragosto

Italian traffic jam on the Autostrada.

‘Red warnings’ are often issued on and around ferragosto due to the number of vehicles on the highway. Accidents and massive queues lasting hours in 80-90° heat are standard.

If you need accommodation or a restaurant, book them well in advance. This is the busiest period of the year in Italy, with virtually the entire country on holiday plus hordes of travelers from other countries too.

You might also hear the word ferragosto as part of the expression ponte di ferragosto. If the 15th of August is on a Thursday or a Tuesday, then you can have a really long weekend or ponte. Ponte means bridge in Italian.

Good To Know:  Ferie d’agosto mean simply august holidays and are not specifically related to ferragosto (although they probably include ferragosto).

Should I Visit Italy During Ferragosto?

How you experience Italy during ferragosto will depend greatly on where you are in the country and what you plan to do.

Traditionally ferragosto was a time to escape from the daily grind, spend time with your family and enjoy simple pleasures like a countryside picnic. Unfortunately, nowadays it’s often associated with overcrowded beauty spots, fractious families and high stress and fighting over parking spots.

While there can be fun events, ferragosto is usually a time for families and friends who celebrate traditionally with a day trip. You may find certain parts of the country (especially cities) completely deserted and while other areas (beaches) completely packed.

There are definitely far better times of the year to visit Italy. With climate change becoming increasingly more evident you will probably also find yourself in the middle of a heatwave.

Whatever you do, don’t drive ANYWHERE on ferragosto, especially on the highway…unless you’re a fan of 10 mile queues or demolition derbies.

What I like to do at ferragosto is to shut myself up at home with a good book and a cocktail or bottle of wine, turn the aircon on to create my own microclimate and not venture out until it’s all over! There are 364 far better days of the year to visit Italy.

Buon Ferragosto – How To Wish Someone a Happy Ferragosto

In Italy we simply say Buon Ferragosto meaning ‘have a good August bank holiday’

The reply could be Buon Ferragosto anche a te! (have a good August bank holiday too)

Or altrettanto! – the same to you!

Good To Know: Because so many Italians travel during ferragosto, the most common way to wish someone a Buon Ferragosto is by text or a WhatsApp message or meme.

Do you like Italian greetings? You may want to read
How to Say Happy Thanksgiving in Italian

How to Say Happy Valentine’s Day in Italian
How to Say Happy New Year in Italian
How to Wish Someone Happy Birthday in Italian

FAQ

Is Ferragosto a National Holiday in Italy?
Yes, the 15th of August, Ferragosto, is a national holiday in Italy.

Will all restaurants and shops be closed on Ferragosto in Italy?
Not necessarily. If you’re in an area with a high concentration of tourism then you may find restaurants and shops open (in fact, it might be one of their busiest days of the year).

If you’re in a city, however, you will find that most shops and quite a few restaurants will be closed.