Easter, and especially Holy Week, is an eagerly awaited festival on the Sorrento Coast, and every year Sorrento attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world who come to watch the traditional Easter processions.
Palm Sunday sees the start of a series of old, local traditions that take place throughout the week. As well as the classic olive branches, here in Sorrento we have some of the loveliest palm trees in the world.
Sugared Almond Palms
In Sorrento and neighbouring towns there's a very old custom that's still observed today. On Palm Sunday, both young and old go to church with their compositions of sugared almonds called palme di confetti to have them blessed. This is how the whole thing is thought to have started... It was an April morning way back in 1551 and the people of Sorrento were going about their daily lives when suddenly the cathedral bells began to ring, warning them of approaching danger. Turkish ships had been sighted off the coast. Having already experienced the fury of pirate incursions by Turks and Saracens, the terrified townspeople took shelter in church and began to pray for their safety. God heard their prayers. A gale rose up, the sea became tempestuous and the enemy ships sank in the storm. Only a young slave girl survived the shipwreck. She was found on the beach by a local fisherman, who took her to church where mass was being held to celebrate Palm Sunday. On entering the church, the young girl threw herself down at the foot of the altar and gave thanks by offering the only thing she possessed: a little bag of sugared almonds. Such confectionaries had never been seen before on the Sorrento Coast, and everyone was extremely curious. The sugared almonds were offered around and the young girl went on to teach the local woman how to make them. Since then, on Palm Sunday women and children in Sorrento take their multi-coloured sugared almond palms (often resembling bouquets of flowers) to be blessed. The sugared almonds are usually coloured, but according to an old tradition, those of unmarried girls are white. The men bring olive branches decorated with brightly coloured ribbons and small cacciocavallo cheeses, usually devoured by children as soon as mass is over!
On Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, about 20 processions take place along the Sorrento Coast, all the way from Meta to Massa Lubrense. They are a vivid representation of the terrible sufferings of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus Christ.
The processions are organized by the many confraternities who for centuries have been spreading the Christian message of love and charity.
In Sorrento itself there are two processions on Good Friday. One takes place in the very early hours of Friday morning, while the other is held in the evening.
The first procession is traditionally called the "Processione Bianca" (White Procession) because of the white robes worn by the hooded participants.
According to popular belief, this procession is supposed to represent the wanderings of Mary as she searches for her son, who has been arrested and condemned to death. It takes place in the middle of the night between Thursday and the early hours of Good Friday.
Despite the late hour, thousands of people watch in silence as hundreds of hooded penitents dressed in white robes, ghostly figures from the distant past, walk slowly by.
The "Processione Nera" procession of the Dead Christ on the evening of Good Friday, again according to popular belief, symbolizes Mary's discovery of Jesus, dead on the cross. For this procession the penitents wear black robes and hoods. Carried on their shoulders, preceding the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, is a beautiful simulacrum of the Dead Christ by an unknown sculptor, an object of untold devotion in Sorrento.
While the White Procession is certainly more atmospheric, taking place as it does in the middle of the night, the "Processione Nera" (Black Procession) is more sombre and awe-inspiring.
The origins of the two processions probably date back to the XVIth century. At that time the confraternities used to visit churches and monasteries where Holy Sepulchres were set up on the evening of Maundy Thursday. The procession was very simple. Members of confraternities dressed in ordinary clothes would walk through the streets with lighted candles, singing psalms and carrying a simple cross between two lances. It was probably only towards the XVIIIth century, during the dominion of the Spanish viceroyalty and under the influence of the numerous Jesuit priests in the Kingdom of Naples at that time, that the kind of processions you can see today began to be held.
People started to carry torches or lanterns, with the symbols of the confraternities, a banner and gonfalon, as well as symbols of the physical tortures suffered by Christ during his ascent to Golgotha. Following behind the processions are around two hundred singers of the Miserere intoning the words of the psalmist David. It represents people who in an act of contrition call on God's mercy for the crime committed against His Only Son. Originally, only brothers and Franciscan monks from the local monastery took part in the Procession of the Dead Christ. When in 1806 a decree issued by Joseph Bonaparte, then King of Naples, forced the monks to leave Sorrento, the brothers "invited" other Sorrento citizens to take part in the procession.
The invitation is still extended today and is a fundamental reason for celebrating Easter. Taking part in the processions is a matter of pride for the people from Sorrento, especially youngsters, who look forward to them for months on end, and the tradition is passed down from generation to generation. The processions are made even more mournful by the notes of funereal marches played by bands at the head of the processions.
The Good Friday Processions are much more than just displays of folklore put on for the tourists. They're a testimony to the deep devotion of the Sorrento people to their religious roots.
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