Italy is the land of festivals and traditions, few of which are as old and embedded in Italian culture as the August 15th celebration known as Ferragosto.
A nationwide Catholic holiday to honor the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, Ferragosto also has ties back to the first Roman emperor, Augustus.
The name itself, Ferragosto, references this fact and is a modern amalgamation of the phrase Feriae Augusti, the Latin term used to describe this holiday period.
Because of its combination of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary religious holiday and an ancient festival season, Ferragosto has a particularly hallowed tradition in the Italian pantheon of holidays.
It is also one that has a long association with summer, family reunions, food, and sport.
Emperor Augustus pragmatically connected a series of summer festivals preceding Feriae Augusti into a longer season. The Augustali period of respite from heavy labor often concluded with horse racing.
This tradition of horse racing to celebrate Ferragosto continues to the present day in the form of the Palio dell’Assunta in Siena on August 16th.
Less formally, Ferragosto is also known as the “start” of the Italian summer season. That likely provides some explanation as to why it is marked with trips to the mountains and retreats away from the Mediterranean heat. Ferragosto also is one of the few times during the year when people can leave their hometowns and go out and explore Italy.
The practice of traveling out of one’s hometown and visiting the rest of Italy gained popularity during the fascist regime of Mussolini in the late 1920s.
One goal of this movement was to give laborers and poorer Italians a chance to go on vacation, often at a discount. To facilitate this, special rates would only be available on August 13, 14, and 15. A prominent example of this is the so-called “people’s trains of Ferragosto” that fanned travelers out from rural areas across Italy.
Typical forms of celebration include a midday picnic and fireworks with bonfires and dancing. Like many such summer holidays across the world, Ferragosto shares some similarities but its history is singularly unique.