Italy’s Ferragosto holiday has roots dating back more than 2,000 years

As usual, most Italian businesses will be closed and beaches will be packed on August 15, the Italian holiday of “Ferragosto,” the official peak of the summer holiday season. In many seaside communities, the end of the day will be marked with a firework display.

All told, it isn’t that different from the “Feriae Augusti” — Latin for “Holidays of Augustus,” named for the Roman Emperor in the year 18 BC — the 2,037-year-old holiday today’s Ferragosto descended from.

As it is today, the holiday was designed to give citizens a period of rest during the hottest part of the year. The celebrations themselves were a little different: horse races were held in big cities and farm animals like oxen and mules were marched through the streets covered in flowers. Workers who crossed paths with their masters on the streets during Feriae Augusti could introduce themselves and receive a monetary tip.

“The holiday has gone through many incarnations over the last more than 2,000 years but there’s a direct line between the Roman tradition and the holiday we celebrate today,” Giorgio Piras, director of the Department of the Science of Antiquity at Rome’s La Sapienza University, told Xinhua.

After Roman times the holiday morphed into a religious holiday. After World War II, it evolved into the holiday celebrated today, a celebration of the approaching end of summer.

Piras said that while it is common for pagan Roman holidays to turn into religious holidays or for religious holidays to turn into modern, secular events, Ferragosto is unusual in that it is one of a very small number of existing holidays to have gone through each of those stages over its history.

The holiday in its current form is only celebrated in Italy, Ticino (the lone Italian-speaking canton in Switzerland), and in San Marino (a republic of around 35,000 citizens completely surrounded by Italian territory near the Italian city of Bologna).

But in the places where it is celebrated, it’s a big deal: there are long lines at supermarkets the day before Ferragosto as locals stock up, knowing stores will be closed, and big cities feel abandoned with minutes sometimes passing without car traffic on major streets. Banks, schools, and government offices are closed and hospitals and law enforcement offices are sparsely staffed.

It may seem puzzling to outsiders. But according to Darius Arya, executive director of the American Institute for Roman Culture, the holiday is a “quintessential Italian experience” that shows Italians’ propensity to take their time off seriously.

“The holiday typifies the summer escape from work and the city, typically to the beaches, to spend time with family and to relax and eat good food and enjoy life,” Arya said in an interview.