I grew up in a small town in Southern Italy called Palermiti, in the province of Catanzaro, in the region of Calabria. If you were to look at a map, chances are, you would never find it. The permanent population of Palermiti is probably around 1,200 residents. Many residents, my family and myself included, have migrated to other regions of the world for better opportunities and only a few permanently still live there at this time. Although the permanent residents are few, it’s during the month of August that the population doubles, perhaps even triples in size. No matter the distance, be it Milan, Rome, Switzerland or the U.S., and whether you have to get there by planes, trains or automobiles, we are all called to return in August to reunite with family and friends, to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the South and to relish in the fiery cuisine. But one other main reason, perhaps the main reason, we all flock back to Palermiti in August is to once again bare witness to the majestic feast of La Madonna Della Luce.
Whenever any ex-pat travels back to Palermiti, the first question you will get from the locals is “You’re staying for the feast, right?” To visit Palermiti in the summer and not stay for the feast is most frowned upon by the locals. A sin, to say the least, and a sure sign of disrespect! Celebrated the last Sunday in August, the feast of La Madonna Della Luce, or Madonna of the Light, is undoubtedly the town’s favorite and most famous day of the year. The feast’s duration is actually three days long and it includes a street fair, a band, a pop musical concert, fireworks and of course a Mass and procession on Sunday. The Madonna is the town’s confidant, a most trusted source for all that ails us, be it troubles of body, mind or spirit.
Stories and tales reign supreme in small-town Italy and how the Madonna of the Light came to Palermiti is an exceptional story indeed. The year was 1720, and the day like any other, until it wasn’t. Field workers had just ended their day in the fields and were headed back home. They walked past an abandoned worksite named Murorotto (broken wall) when among the rubbles of discarded construction equipment, they suddenly noted an immense burst of light coming from the area. Upon closer examination, they found a beautiful and rather large fresco painting surrounded by thick bricks and cement. The painting was of a beautiful Madonna and child. Adorned in celestial blue, she held baby Jesus in her left hand and a bright candle in her right, of which the light they had noted was coming from.
Word soon spread, as it still tends to do in these small towns, and people from nearby towns all immediately gathered to witness this miraculous scene for themselves, some claiming miracles occurring right on the spot. Many construction workers from local towns came to try and remove the painting from the wall and bring it to a more dignified location, but despite their strength in trying, they were unable to move it. That is until a certain Mr. De Marco, from Palermiti, came to visit the Modonna. With much ease and a gentle tug, he was able to remove the painting from its improper location, but the question remained, where should it be moved? Everyone who came to witness this miracle claimed the newly named Madonna of the Light as their own. Since they could not come to a conclusion, they decided that the painting should be placed on an unguided oxen cart. The oxen were free to go where they pleased without direction from anyone. The town in which the oxen were to stop could claim the Madonna of the Light as their own. It seemed to be a fair method under the circumstances.
With the painting securely placed on the cart, the oxen started their journey. Their slow voyage took several hours and they crossed several towns. It wasn’t until they arrived in front of an old church in Palermiti that the oxen stopped, kneeling in fact. Were they exhausted from their journey under the scorching, summer sun? Not so, we like to believe, they had plenty of opportunity to stop beforehand. Rather, the Madonna Della Luce had selected her new home, Palermiti. What an honor it was for the Palermitesi to have the Madonna of the Light select their town as her home. That same honor is still felt this day, close to 300 years later.
The Madonna of the Light is as significant today as ever. Every five years, a special celebration takes place. A replica of the painting is once again taken to Murorotto. The trip to Murorotto is completed by cars these days, but the return trip to her home in Palermiti is always done the way it was in 1720. Followed by a large statue of the Madonna, and thousands of pilgrims, the painting is securely situated on an oxen cart and makes its way back to Palermiti. The pilgrimage takes hours, under the August sun, many walking in bare feet to demonstrate their devotion, or in gratitude for a favor granted by the Holy Mother.
The Madonna Della Luce remains Palermiti’s main pride. The feast is known throughout Calabria and the small town of nearly 1,200 swells by the thousands the week-end of the feast as locals and non-locals all come to enjoy the festivities, fireworks, music but most of all, to pay homage and gratitude to the beloved Madonna Della Luce.
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