The feast of San Leone in Saracena: the authentic soul of the village

Festa si Leone

I want to accompany you along the streets of Saracena. I want you to see dusk on 19 February as you have never seen it, even this year when we can only imagine it. This is the feast where all the classic religious schemes are skipped, the occasion to rediscover the authentic spirit of the community: Saint Leo is not just a saint, he is the very identity of a hard-working and spontaneous people who return to their roots. 

The cold is biting and the air, perfumed with the scent of cut olive branches and dry wood, piled in large quantities and leaning against the walls of houses, will soon be filled with a new odour: that of the fire burning in honour of the patron saint to whom the Saracens address prayers and requests and whom tonight, as for almost a thousand years, they will celebrate noisily, joyfully. 

The 'fucarazzi'. , imposing bonfires set up in every neighbourhood, burn in anticipation of the passage of the banner carried in procession in place of the statue, and more fire accompanies the route through the lanes of the village: the 'varvasche' - wax torches formerly made from the barbasco yew, a spontaneous grass of the Pollino - are numerous and form a red, crackling river that, starting from the church, prays and purifies the air as it passes, chasing away evil and preparing nature for rebirth, in an obvious interweaving of Christian and pagan rites.

Prayers, yes, but above all, songs and dances that recall the Calabrian peasant and pastoral tradition, with its typical instruments: accordions, 'ciaramedde' (traditional bagpipes), 'cupu cupu' (buckets lined with sheepskin with holes in the top, in which a reed is inserted) and 'ciancianedde' (branches decorated with multicoloured bows and bells, which tower over the faithful, making noise, with a clear apotropaic function).

Warming the air and spirits is the wine, red and locally produced, even better if it is familiar, which colours the cheeks and lightens the spirit, prompting the faithful to dance, intertwining their hands to create circles and jumping to the rhythm of ancient tarantellas that have very little that is sacred about them. People laugh, people cackle, some shout "Long live San Leone!" o "semp Santu Liun'!" and the jubilant crowd responds in chorus to the call, in a display of collective joy that at times becomes euphoria. 

The whole village flows around us: we start from the straight and anonymous streets of the upper and modern part and then enter the original heart of the village, the Arab-Byzantine historical centre with its articulated, complex and at the same time simple architecture that constitutes the 'kasbah' of Saracena, a unique and precious jewel.

 The snake of people ascends from the lowest part of the town, the old Scarano square, and some run to reach Santo Lio square before the others, positioned halfway between the new and old town, where the wide-open door of the mother church awaits the procession for the climax of the evening: the dancing and singing on the high altar, under the paternal eye of the statue of Saint Leo the Bishop, placed high up for all to admire, ready to listen to the patron's hymn and the shouted acclamations at the top of his voice.

The church fills up, it is packed. Faithful, guests and onlookers who have flocked in from neighbouring villages find places wherever they can, even standing on the pews, to watch the colourful groups that cross the main aisle to the altar and there dance thunderously in gratitude to the saint who drove out the famine and saved the community, binding it indissolubly to himself. In this way, faith and devotion are manifested, and at the same time we shed our fears to experience a moment of total carefreeness, certain that Saint Leo will understand our gestures, that we do not care if they are understood by others: what really counts is that he listens to us, embraces us, welcomes us in our own way, a Saracen way.

Slowly, the faithful pay homage to the Protector and then, passing through the sacristy, located on the right side of the altar, try to make their way through the aisles to the exit, where one can breathe again after being enveloped by a human tide of all ages. One makes one's way towards the neighbourhoods, the 'vicinanz', where everything is ready to share dinner with one's neighbours and friends, in the open air or in organised places, with music and dancing, welcoming the patrons who will be walking around all night and offering them a glass of wine, some olives, a piece of sausage or the 'cannaricoli', typical sweets containing a special ingredient: moscato di Saracena, a delicious fortified wine and Slow Food presidium whose recipe is jealously guarded by the women of each family, and which brings even more joy when drunk in front of a blazing bonfire, listening to ancient tales and laughing in company. 

The festival ends at first light, when all that is left of the piles of fragrant branches is a pile of twigs, when almost all the 'fucarazzi' are extinguished and the last inhabitants return to their homes to rest after the sleepless night, when the streets are covered in ash and the air smells of smoke.

The wonder of the rite has been fulfilled once again, a rite with unique and authentic traits, deeply felt by the community of Saracena, which does not give up for one night to close in on itself and at the same time to welcome, giving anyone who wants to come to this village immersed in the Pollino National Park a timeless, unchanging experience, shocking for some, but certainly unforgettable and to be preserved. 

On the cover - Jubilant crowd during the second part of the celebrations in Piazza Scarano - photo from

en_GBEnglish (UK)