In Italy, I have come to believe that you don't need much reason in order to celebrate life! It seems like at least a few times a month, there's a reason to get together, order cake, celebrate! There are also a lot of "Saint" holidays in Italy! St. Francis, St. Antonio, St. Giuseppe and of course, St. Giovanni, or St. John. Celebrated just two weeks after St. Francis, (see previous post), St. Giovanni Battista celebrates St. John the Baptist and while growing up in Italy, my family was no different in celebrating, particularly because my dad's name was Giovanni.
In Christianity, it is believed that Jesus was a follower of John and that John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. As stated, Italy has many such religious holidays celebrating saints and depending on the location and region, it can be a full celebration with parades, fireworks and processions or it may be more subdued, or as subdued as Italians can do anything!
By far, the biggest cities that celebrate the feast day of St. John include Florence, Genoa and Turin, as St. John is their patron saint. If you’re not familiar with what a patron saint is, they are basically considered to be cities protectors and intercede on the cities’ wellbeing on behalf of God. Just about every small town in Italy has a patron saint, which is celebrated at various times during the year. It’s a comfort for many residents to feel that their own city or town is under divine protection. Many businesses are closed on this day, as well as most public offices. A Mass, fireworks, parades, processions and other traditional festivities take place in these cities and families gather to celebrate their saint. Fireworks are displayed over the Arno River in Florence, so if you find yourself there during this time of year, you will be in for a treat.
In Italy, the relationship between Godfather and Godchild is very strong. What does this have to do with St. Giovanni, you ask? Well, when someone baptizes a baby, they always refer to that relationship as having “Il San Gianni” with them, meaning that like the relationship between St. John and Jesus, they now have an unbreakable bond. Many Godfathers and Godchildren celebrate this day with small tokens of gifts or simply treating each other to an espresso or gelato.
All of the “Giovanni,” “Giovanna” and names deriving from these, celebrate their onomastico on this day. An onomastico is a celebration of one’s “name day.” Quite popular in Italy, it is similar in celebration to one’s birthday, particularly for names such as Giovanni, Antonio, Giuseppe and Francesco/a. I recall growing up celebrating my dad’s onomastico on June 24th and it would always include a cake with a small family gathering.
So if you know a Giovanni/a, wish them “auguri di felice onomastico” – or happy name day! They might wonder what that means, so you will be able to tell them that you’re celebrating their name day, as is tradition in Italy!
Growing up in an Italian household, I heard the phrase “St. Anthony will help you find it!” so many times that they were ingrained in me pretty much from birth! It didn’t matter what the “it” was, whether it was an object of little monetary value or an item more sentimental, my mother always had utmost trust and belief that if we prayed to the Patron Saint of Lost Things, we’d find whatever us kids had misplaced. More often than not, she was right. And I’d be lying if I said I still don't call on him when I misplace my everyday items. If not for St. Anthony, I might never find my car keys!
My mom has always had a close relationship with St. Anthony, also the Patron Saint of Padova (Padua in English), and she has passed that on. We were excited when a few years ago, we were able to visit his own preferred location in Italy.
A few years ago, on a return trip to our native Calabria, my mother, sister and I decided to take a train ride to Padova to visit the shrine that is devoted to St. Anthony. Calabria is as far south as you can get in Italy, with the exception of Sicily. The Veneto area, the region in which Padova is located, is pretty much at the opposite end of Italy. It was August and it was hot. Very, very hot! And why we decided to take the train as oppose to a simple flight it still beyond us! But the adventures train ride did add to the experience.
The very long, hot, uncomfortable train ride was all but forgotten once we reached the beautiful, but not very “touristy” city of Padova. There’s a sense of classiness to this city that is somewhat unique. The people are beautifully dressed, the dogs are on leashes, which is not always the case in Southern Italy, and the drivers actually appear respectful of traffic lights, which, again, is not always the case in Southern Italy! Our first stop, and reason for the trip, was a visit to the Chapel of St. Anthony, an immense, brick building, overwhelmingly stunning.
The inside is massive and adorned with art, religious statues and relics of St. Anthony. A sense of calm immediately overtakes you upon entering. I knew being here meant a lot to my mother, particularly since we had lost our father not long prior and needed a restoration of faith. This was a “bucket list” trip for her, so my sister and I were delighted to see how content she was at being there. Folks from all walks of life are drawn to this church by their strong devotion to the Saint, and she was no different.
Whether one is religious or not is almost inconsequential once one takes a view of both the outside and inside of this beautiful chapel. Museum like in nature, the outside was initially built as a small, single construction, but extensive additions and renovations over the centuries reflect Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Byzantine influences. Architecture aficionados and novices alike will appreciate the beauty of the outside. Upon entering, you’ll notice that it’s much like entering a museum. Beautiful frescoes, statues and figurines adorn the inside. Most impressive is the statue of the Madonna and Child, sculpted by Donatello.
Despite being the patron Saint of the city of Padova, St. Anthony was actually from Portugal. Born in 1195, his birth name was Ferdinand and he was born to a well-off family who had high aspirations for him, none of which included a religious calling. Despite his good fortune, he ended up leaving his home at 15 to follow his religious ambitions. At the age of 25, he was ordained a priest, and soon after became a Franciscan friar, changing his name to Anthony.
His goal was to go to Morocco and preach the gospel, but after arriving there, he became severely ill, so decided to return to Portugal. His boat suffered great damage and went off course, and he eventually found himself in Sicily instead. From there, he made his way north to Assisi, and eventually to the city of Forli. One day he was asked to attend an important sermon, but when the friar scheduled to preach did not show up, he was asked to step in his place. This is when his life as a preacher took off, and he traveled all over Italy and beyond to preach. Padova was one of his favorite places to hold his sermons.
When he recognized that he was becoming deathly ill, he asked to be taken to Padova to die, but unfortunately died en route to his beloved city. He died on June 13th, 1231, when he was just 36 years old. For his innumerable good deeds and several possible miracles, including a witnessed apparition of the Child Jesus being held in his arms, Anthony was canonized a Saint in 1232.
This trip, dare I say, pilgrimage, was very moving for us all. It’s hard not to be touched when surrounded by such artistic beauty, as well as all the handwritten notes on the walls left behind by pilgrims who wholeheartedly believe their prayers were answered by the Saint. It restored not only my religious faith, but also my faith in humankind. To see this devotion is unlike any other experience one might have in Italy.
I have beautiful memories of how we celebrated June 13th, the feast day of St. Anthony, when we lived in Italy. On this day, bread shops bake many extra bread rolls for the purpose of celebrating the Saint. Rolls are bought and given away to friends, families and neighbors as an offering of thanksgiving for prayers answered by St. Anthony.
So if St. Anthony has come through for your before, being by finding your car keys or other more meaningful miracles, consider doing a good deed on June 13th, perhaps buy someone less fortunate lunch and consider it a thank you to St. Anthony.
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Is it June, or is it November? If you live in the Boston area, it’s hard to tell these days. Rain, dreary, cold and downright depressing! We haven’t had much of a spring and I’m afraid we’re going to jump right into summer soon. What ever happened to a nice spring? The only thing keeping me going these days is my upcoming trip to Italy! The thought of summers in Italy has kept me going ever since we moved here from the Bel Paese. Summers in Italy is what made the school year bearable growing up! Especially when we first moved here, and we were still learning English. My dad and I would count down the months, then the weeks, until eventually we were counting in days and hours! The excitement was almost too much to take!
I must say, not much has changed, and I still count down the days to my return trips to Italy! And, if you’re like me and are planning a trip to Italy this summer, chances are, you’re going to be bringing some souvenirs for yourself and close friends. But rather than the standard magnet that says “I "heart" Italy” that is likely made in China, how about a thoughtful gift instead? Yes, you will be spending more, but it will go a lot further in appreciation and will surely make the recipient feel so special! Think quality over quantity!
Much like everything in Italy, souvenirs can be regionally divided. Depending on your destination, I have created here a short list of ideal gifts based on the region you will be visiting. Perhaps it’s the foodie in me, but I must say, food is always an appreciated gift. But don’t limit yourself to food alone; use this guide as a quick reference of must bring back gifts. But if you are planning to bring back food, be sure to check with your airline and the State Department before packing anything, just to make sure you are not bringing back any contraband food items! Nothing hurts more than having your luggage cracked opened at customs and seeing the agents trash your goodies, trust me I know how much it hurts from experience!!
If you’re headed to Venice this summer, brace yourself for the heat and crowds! But besides that, be sure to pick up a small handmade Murano glass statuette or figurine. Murano is a small island off of Venice that produces the real thing. When buying your gift, be sure it has the Artistic Murano Glass trademark to make sure you are getting an authentic item and not a cheap replica aimed at eager tourists!
Perhaps you’re headed to Lake Como this summer. I know, I know, I want to get a glimpse of George too, but in case he’s too busy with his new twins, I can at least shop for some high-quality silk. Seventy percent of Europe’s silk is made in Como, so you know you’re going to find a beautiful scarf for that fashionista friend of yours.
Headed to one of my favorite regions, Emilia Romagna? Here is where you will want to stock up on the foodie gifts for your special friends. Whether it’s a small piece of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese from Parma or small bottle of Balsamic Vinegar from Modena, a few eatable gifts are a must from this region. They even sell dry tortellini that are incredibly delicious! And yes, you can find these same exact items throughout Italy, but there’s noting like handing a loved one a small bottle of real Balsamic Vinegar of Modena that you bought, well, in Modena!
Headed to Tuscany? While you will find great leather throughout Tuscany, Florence is the place to find high-quality leather shops selling locally made leather goods. Check the label for “Made in Italy” and “Italian Quality” to make sure you are getting an authentic item. Keep in mind that the real thing will have some minimal imperfections and even slight discolorations in any given item, be it a large bag or set of gloves. So don’t look for perfection, as that’s a sign of a chemically-treated item. My favorite leather gift? A journal! I can never have enough of these!
And the vino! How can you go to Tuscany and not bring a loved one a bottle of Chianti, Brunello or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Tuscany also produces the sweet wine, Vin Santo, which ironically, goes very well with their Cantucci di Prato. Cantucci are miniature dry biscuits resembling biscotti, but smaller in size. Tuscans love dipping these in Vin Santo and enjoying them as an after dinner treat. A bottle of Tuscan wine and a bag of Cantucci are sure to go a long way as souvenirs. I know I’d love receiving them!
Or perhaps you are going to Italy’s capital, Rome? Whatever you do, step away from the wobbly-headed gladiator. I know, it’s tempting, in his skirt and all, but don’t do it! Opt instead for an artistically made ceramic coffee mug or small piece of marble engraved with a beautiful saying. Both of these are regionally made and typical of Rome. And if all else fails, buy a small wedge of Pecorino Romano cheese, Rome’s preferred cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Going to Calabria? Did you know that Calabria produces almost a third of the country’s olive oil? How about bringing back a small bottle of oil for those “special occasion” dinner parties? Other food specialties of Calabria include tuna packed in oil, olives, and Guglielmo espresso coffee. And I also love the ceramics in Calabria. I visit a small town by the name of Squillace. Here you will find many pottery shops that love welcoming visitors and will even give you a demonstration of how they create their masterpieces. Now, if you’re going to buy a magnet, this is the place to do it! They make beautiful ones here, relatively inexpensive and light in weight, so easy to pack!
Or perhaps you’re going to the Amalfi Coast? If so, a bottle of Limoncello is a must. Made with lemon peel and alcohol, this after dinner digestive is a must and usually enjoyed after a hefty dinner as it aids with digestion. The Amalfi Coast is also where you will find beautiful handmade pottery, frequently decorated with those beautiful lemon images. A small handmade item such as a sugar bowl or tray will make a great addition to any kitchen.
What should you bring back if you are headed to Sicily? Sicilian wine and cheese would surely make a great gift, I mean, how can you go wrong with that? But are you thinking about something more authentic? How about a piece of Etna? Yes, you read that right. The still active volcano sits between Catania and Messina and is a tourist destination of many folks visiting Sicily. Along the way, you will find souvenir and specialty shops selling trinkets made from lava stones. Whether it’s jewelry, decorative pieces or more practical items such as mugs, there’s no shortage of unique items to bring back, even cosmetics made from the lava!
So don’t get caught buying a cheesy, overpriced gift at the airport. Nothing says “I was having too much fun to think about you while on vacation” than a calendar purchased at the duty-free shop! With just a little bit of forethought and a few extra Euros, you can really make someone’s day with a well-thought-out gift from one of the world’s most beautiful country! And when in doubt, head over to one of the many craft markets held throughout Italy. Here you will find handmade items that are locally made and very unique. Purchasing from these vendors will not only ensure that the gift will be well-received, but you are also supporting a small business owner that counts on your purchases for their livelihood!
But if all else fails, forget shopping, forget souvenirs, and head to the beach instead! I'm sure your friends will understand! ;-)
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