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Festivities for Saint Sebastian

The Greek Theatre
March 21, 2021
The Culture of Hospitality
March 23, 2021
Ph. © Antonio Gerbino

The Festivities of San Sebastiano at Siracusa

Nowadays the celebrations for Saint Sebastian maintain their popular appeal but have adapted to social and cultural changes and in particular have found a new cultural dimension. In recent years, the religious celebrations have been accompanied by cultural events organised by the Committee for the Festivities, that have cast light on various aspects of the devotion, cult and traditions of the feast-day, not just at Siracusa but also in the province. This has initiated a dialogue with other places which recognise in San Sebastiano their special patron and protector.
Procession of Saint Sebastian
The feast-day of San Sebastiano at Siracusa is marked by some important moments which attract the crowds. First is the opening of the niche which hosts the statue of the saint during the year, a moving rite which reaffirms the importance of the cult and tradition. The saint is then put on the ‘vara’, a float made of carved and gilded wood, and carried on shoulder to the high altar of the church where it stands until the end of the celebrations. January 20th is the day dedicated to the Municipal police, because Saint Sebastian is not only the co-patron of the city but he is also patron saint of this branch of the state police, so there is a parade in Piazza Duomo and then a special mass is held by the archbishop of Siracusa. The following Sunday is the moment for the outdoor celebrations and all day long people crowd to the church for mass and to get a loaf of ‘Saint Sebastian’s bread’ to take home - the bread is blessed and then offered to the congregation.
In the afternoon the procession around Ortigia begins, starting in Piazza Duomo where the crowds gather. The music of the band sounds, the festive bells ring out and fireworks explode as the heavy ‘vara’ with Saint Sebastian is carried out of the church into the square where it is welcomed by applause and invocations.
One of the customs still popular today is for the faithful to offer large fish-shaped loaves decorated with ribbons and sweets as the procession moves through the streets. These loaves will then be sold at the auction held before the saint returns to the church. The statue is carried solemnly through the narrow lanes of the historic centre, glinting in the dark and reflecting the lights off the folds of his gilded loincloth, the four arrows which pierce his torso and arms, and his golden halo.
At the end of the procession comes the moment everyone has been waiting for, and which repeats a time-honoured tradition - the ‘bread auction’. The auctioneer is a member of one of the harbour worker families still active and thanks to whom the celebrations of Saint Sebastian are maintained. A little stage is set up in front of the Church of the Badia and the auctioneer starts to call out in the expectant silence, presenting the gifts which have been donated to the saint and shouting the starting prices. There’s a babble of numbers called out from right and left, men and women, sometimes even young children, as everyone tries to win one of the large decorated loaves or baskets of oranges or biscuits, or whatever the saint has managed to ‘harvest’ during his procession.
A firework display then warms the cold night sky of Siracusa and the hearts of the faithful in the square, leaving a trail of melancholy in the air as the celebrations end, San Sebastiano returns to his niche and another feast-day is over. But there will be another one next year so Viva Sammastianu!
Marzo 2021

Studia all’Istituto Statale d’Arte, si specializza in Pittura e Arti Visive all’Accademia di Belle Arti di Noto e completa gli studi sul patrimonio artistico presso l’Istituto di Scienze religiose S. M. di Monte Berico. Studioso del culto di Santa Lucia, ha pubblicato diversi volumi tra i quali, di recente, Santa Lucia nella pittura aretusea. Pale d’altare e dipinti devozionali nelle chiese della provincia di Siracusa. Ha catalogato il prezioso corredo del Simulacro argenteo della Santa e ha diretto la collana editoriale della Deputazione della Cappella di S. Lucia di Siracusa. Per Morlacchi editore ha collaborato al testo Lux in tenebris lucet.