It was St. Augusta’s day here yesterday. She was a 1st century Christian martyr from modern-day Veneto whose staunchly pagan father had her imprisoned, tortured and beheaded in an effort to make her renounce her faith. The day before was St Teodoro’s day. This particular St. Teodoro was martyred in Libya in the 3rd century, but there are apparently a further eleven whose feast days are scattered about the year. And earlier this week we also had the feast day of St. Lea of Rome (who as a young widow joined one of the first female Christian communities of which she later became mother superior and where she lived a life of extreme humility and piety until her death in 384AD), St. Turibio di Mogrovejo (a 16th century Spanish bishop who undertook missionary work in Peru where he founded South America’s first seminary), and St. Romolo (who was a victim of the persecutions of Christians carried out by Emperor Diocletian in the 4th century).
Then next week we’ve got the feast days of St. Amedeo (born a Savoy Duke in 1435, he gathered armies at the Pope’s request to defend Christianity against the Turkish threat in the Peloponnese and lived a life of great austerity and humility coupled with great generosity to the poor), and St. Beniamino (a 5th century Persian deacon who, having refused to stop preaching the word of God, suffered martyrdom by having his body pierced with pins).
But St Alexander of Sicily, St Francis of Paola and St Isidoro of Seville are all going to have to take a back seat this year as their feast days are effectively trumped by Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday respectively. Once Easter is over, though, we go back to a saint a day – literally: every day of the church year has a corresponding saint, and every saint has his or her own day in the church calendar. However, since there are very many more saints in Italy than days, a lot of days have more than one saint. For instance, while 17th March is recognised throughout the Christian world as St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland actually shares his feast day here with another seven saints and three beati (‘blesseds’). Mind you, 17th March is actually quite a quiet day, saint-wise: if today weren’t Palm Sunday, no fewer than thirteen saints and eight beati would normally be celebrating their feast day on 28th March.
As a kind of side-effect of the abundance of saints in Italy is that every town can claim to have had a saint who was born there, who died there, who studied there, or who even just visited the place, and that saint will then be adopted as the town’s patron saint. On his or her feast day an icon of the saint will often be carried in a procession to or from the parish church where a special Mass will be held, and there will also be other more secular festivities, typically involving eating, drinking and making merry. In many places the day is declared a public holiday so shops and schools will even be closed for the occasion. But only in that town of course: the day won’t be a holiday anywhere else since it won’t be their patron saint’s day. Thus Montelupone more or less closes on 11th March for the feast of San Firmano who founded a Benedictine abbey here in the 10th century and went on to perform a range of miracles. Meanwhile it is on 4th May that Ancona has a public holiday to celebrate the feast of San Ciriaco, an early bishop of Ancona who is believed to have assisted Empress Helena in her search for the True Cross, and who died (or was killed) on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in about the 4th century. Macerata, on the other hand, comes to a halt on 31st August when the sky is lit up with fireworks to mark the feast of San Giuliano, who in penance for killing his wife in a fit of jealous rage became a pilgrim. He also gave assistance to other pilgrims, helping them across the Potenza river just outside Macerata. One of those he helped was a leper who was revealed to be an angel sent to confirm that his penance had been completed and that he would be reunited with his wife in heaven.
Such celebrations are not limited to smaller, more rural communities either. Cities as large, sophisticated and otherwise secular as Milan also set great store by their patron saints. Indeed, even this economic powerhouse closes for business every 7th December to celebrate the feast of its patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio. A skilled and eloquent politician and academic as well as an ascetic and pious cleric, he did much to strengthen Christianity and the Catholic church in the post-Roman era and was elected bishop of Milan in the 4th century. On his feast day, which also marks the unofficial start of Christmas, a special Mass is held in the basilica he himself commissioned, and in the piazza that surrounds it there is a sprawling street market selling food, drink, toys, crafts and antiques. It is also the day that traditionally marks the opening night of the season at the world famous La Scala opera house.
The other main way in which a given saint’s feast day is celebrated is through the custom of the onomastico, or name day. That is to say, if you are named after a saint – and nearly everyone is, even if it’s just their middle name – then that saint’s feast day is your onomastico. For the record, mine, it turns out, is on 9th March and Mr Blue-Shirt’s on 26th January. On this day, you may receive cards, small gifts and a special cake, almost like a second birthday; indeed, in parts of the south, your name day is considered more important than your birthday.
So should you happen to be called Carné, Eumelio, Castore, Gontanno, Conone, Ilarione, Cirillo, Giuseppe Sebastiano, Prisco, Malco, Alessandro, Proterio or Stefano (unlikely, I realise), then Buon Onomastico!