Being a Catholic in the US is different from being a Catholic in Italy. Here, there is no state religion. Decorations, holiday sentiments, religious education is limited to what your family and friends expose you to, and most of the time that seems very limited, indeed. Every Ash Wednesday, without fail, some stranger tells me – honestly trying to be helpful – that I have a smudge on my forehead.
The intended result of having no state religion is that no one feels excluded. But adversely, no one feels included, either.
Being in Verona for Easter, as I was in 2012, was a completely different experience. It seems like the entire country is celebrating, though of course they’re not, as not all Italians are religious and even if they are, they’re not necessarily Catholic. Decorations are everywhere with no concern for mixing government and religious property. Verona’s city bell tower is lit up purple, the traditional Lenten color representing Christ’s sacrifice. The CITY bell tower!
Now, I understand that to some people, particularly non-Catholics, this could seem a bit suffocating, and I’m not saying its better or worse not having a state religion, but – oh! For me it was like a magical fairy land where everyone was celebrating a holiday together. Signs were up all over posting hours for “Pasqua” and “Pasquetta” (Easter and the Monday after – also a holiday in Italy). Every restaurant had special menus for Easter and decorations in their windows, free to celebrate without fearing of offending anyone. It’s always been a bit sad to me that anyone celebrating anything could be offensive – celebrations are positive times. I was a Religious Studies major in college and don’t remember many – if any – celebrations in any tradition that are meant to oppress those who don’t participate; they purely uplift those who do.
And the pastries! All of the windows were bright with pastels – cookies, chocolates, cakes – endless varieties of absolutely everything you could imagine, all in pinks, robin egg blue, yellows and greens! One pasticceria in particular, Pasticceria Cordioli, on the road leading into Piazza Erbe, always had a gaggle of drooling children and adults alike in front of its windows, ooo-ing and ahhh-ing over the colorful delights.
I stopped in to buy myself some easter treats. The place was bustling. Glass display counters lined the three walls of a large, wood-paneled and-floored room, filled with more types of chocolate and baked good that I had known existed. As in Rome’s Giolittli gelato shop, there didn’t seem to be any sort of organized line; locals simply pushed their way to the counter and got the attention of one of the young, polite women behind it who helped them with their selections and took their payment. Repeating over and over in my head “Vorrei un di questo… vor-ay-oon-dee-ques-toh…”, hoping I could have a chance to use my newly memorized phrases to order (a lot of the times I had tried, shopkeepers had just started talking to me in English instead!), I got the attention of the girl behind the counter and gave it a go. A marzipan bunny, some almond butter cookies similar to the ones my grandmother used to make, and some sort of slice of yellow and pink tube-thing that I was more curious about than anything else. I paid, feeling like a little kid with my hand in the cookie jar as I rushed out of the shop and straight back to my B&B to immediately eat them.
Though everything was amazing, the pink & yellow thing was my favorite. I emailed the bakery recently to find out what it was but haven’t heard back yet. I might’ve been a type of marzipan, but it definitely had a different consistency and flavor than the marzipan bunny so I’m not sure. And very put out about it! A bartender here in LA who I recently met is from Verona and – having no shame – I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture. She recognized it and said its a vanilla paste, not marzipan, wrapped in a thick, sugar-wrap, but couldn’t think of the name. Hmmm…
Have you spent Easter in Italy? What’s your favorite tradition?