You may or may not have heard of patron saint days, but they can have a big impact on your trip to Italy. Learn about what patron saint days are, how Italians celebrate them, who Italy’s national patron saints are, and a list of some of the patron saint days in cities and towns all over Italy.
You might be interested in witnessing local celebrations for Italian patron saint days, you may want to avoid the crowds, or you may want to make sure the town you’re visiting won’t be all closed up for its patron saint day. In any case, while planning a trip, look into the local customs of the towns and cities you’ll be visiting in Italy. Patron saints can make or break your visit!
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WHAT IS A PATRON SAINT DAY?
In Italy, a Catholic country, every town has a patron saint who is believed to protect the town, and intercede with God on locals’ behalf. Every day in the Catholic calendar is assigned to a different patron saint, or santo patrono. An Italian town celebrates its patron saint on la festa del santo patrono: the saint’s patron saint day or feast day.
The patron saint day is considered a public holiday in that city or town, so public offices, businesses and schools are closed. Even two Italian towns right next to each other have two different patron saints, so the offices in one will be closed for the patron saint day, while right in the next town it’s business as usual.
Italian towns and cities can have more than one patron saint. And more than one Italian city can have the same patron saint. And the same day can be dedicated to more than one patron saint, since there are so many!
Often, the patron saint day is almost always the anniversary of the day they died. For example, Saint Sylvester, or San Silvestro, died on December 31, which became his feast day.
Why does an Italian town have a certain patron saint? A town’s patron saint is usually connected to the town in some way. The saint may have been born, lived or died in the town, or the town may have their relics. For example, Saint Valentine (San Valentino), the patron saint of Terni, Umbria, was born there in about 226.
HOW DO ITALIAN TOWNS CELEBRATE THEIR PATRON SAINT DAY?
A town’s patron saint day is considered a public holiday, or giorno festivo. Public offices, businesses and schools are closed, and sometimes coffee bars and restaurants are too.
There are special religious services devoted to the patron saint, and usually there is a religious procession through the streets of town. Even though patron saint day is also translated as feast day in English, and food is a big part of Italian celebrations, there’s not necessarily any actual feasting involved. Fireworks are an important part of most patron saint celebrations in Italy.
Not only that, there is often a festival, and some Italian towns and cities have elaborate customs and celebrations that only happen there.
Florence’s patron saint is Saint John (San Giovanni), whose feast day is June 24th. In the morning there is a procession. In the evening, under the blazing sun in Piazza Santa Croce, there is the final match of calcio storico, Florence’s very own centuries-old sport. It’s a violent mix of soccer, rugby, boxing, and straight up street fighting. In the evening there are fantastic fireworks set off from Piazzale Michelangelo which light up the sky all over the city.
In Gubbio, Umbria, on May 15th, the eve of Sant’Ubaldo (Saint Ubaldo’s feast day) there is the renowned, centuries-old Festa dei Ceri. This is often translated to Festival of the Candles, but really the ceri are three wooden pedestals that are several meters high and weigh almost 300 kg each. Each is topped with a different statue: San Giorgio, Sant’Antonio Abate, and Sant’Ubaldo. The pedestals are supported by beams of wood, which are carried by a team of men called ceraioli.
The Festa dei Ceri lasts all day. At noon, the ceri are hoisted to standing position in a magnificent, emotional ceremony in the middle of a packed Piazza Grande, in front of Sant’Ubaldo Basilica. The ceri are paraded through the city. Then at about 6pm, the three teams of ceraioli race the ceri through the narrow medieval streets to Sant’Ubaldo Basilica. As if this weren’t strenuous and dramatic enough, there’s an important catch: Gubbio is built on the side of a hill, and Sant’Ubaldo Basilica– the finish line– sits on top of Mount Ingino!
Florence and Gubbio’s patron saint festival are famous, large and elaborate celebrations. While there are plenty of large festivals, not all patron saint festivals are as spectacular. Throughout Italy, in towns big and small, there are simple, small scale festivals as well.
In our small Chianti village near Florence, there is a much humbler celebration, but it’s a party just the same. The whole town shuts down on August 13th, San Cassiano’s feast day. In the evening, there is a street market, and a big fireworks display. San Cassiano marks the start of summer vacation for many locals. Since ferragosto is just two days later, after the patron saint day the town pretty much empties out after for the following week or two, when the locals head out of town.
ITALY’S PATRON SAINTS
The patron saints of Italy are San Francesco d’Assisi and Santa Caterina di Siena (Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Siena). They are celebrated on October 4, San Francesco’s patron saint day. The Italian parliament has designated it a “day of peace, and dialogue among religions”. I have to admit, my Italian husband had no idea, and I’ve lived in Italy for over 15 years and just found this out.
ITALIAN CITIES AND THEIR PATRON SAINTS
Some important Patron Saint days, and their cities, are:
February 5: Sant’Agata (Catania, Sicily)
February 14: San Valentino (Terni, Umbria)
April 25: San Marco Evangelista (Venice, Veneto)
May 7-9: San Nicola di Bari (Bari, Puglia)
May 14: San Costanzo (Capri, Campania)
May 16: Sant’Ubaldo (Gubbio, Umbria)
May 21: San Zeno (Verona, Veneto)
June 17: San Ranieri (Pisa, Tuscany)
June 24: San Giovanni Battista (Florence, Tuscany; Turin, Piedmont)
June 27: Sant’Andrea (Amalfi, Campania)
June 29: Santi Pietro e Paolo (Rome, Lazio)
July 15: Santa Rosalia (Palermo, Sicily)
July 23: Sant’Apollinare (Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna)
September 19: San Gennaro (Naples, Campania)
October 4: San Petronio (Bologna, Emilia-Romagna)
November 11: San Martino (Peschiera del Garda and Lazise, Veneto)
December 1: Sant’Ansano di Siena (Siena, Tuscany) December 6: San Niccolò (Bardolino, Veneto), San Nicola di Bari (Bari, Puglia again!) December 7: Sant’Ambrogio (Milan, Lombardy)