Ferragosto is so closely associated with “mare o monte,” the sea or the mountains–where Italians spend this national holiday–that many forget the origins why they have the day off! August 15 is the Feast of the Assumption, the day Catholics celebrate when the Virgin Mother ascended body and soul into Heaven. This image, “Dormitio Virginis,” or Death of the Virgin, is a scene of mosaic artwork from the wall of Palermo’s “La Martorana” church, La Chiesa di Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (c. 1143).
The pre-Christian origins of this holiday stem from the Latin “Feriae Augustin,” or Roman Emperor Augustus’ Holidays, which marked a time of rest and celebration at the conclusion of the arduous growing and harvest seasons (Remember the other day when I talked about wheat?). Before the Virgin Mother, ancient Sicilians celebrated Demeter (or the Roman iteration of the goddess of grains, Ceres), thanking her for all of the abundance that summer has brought us.