Walking on Roses with A Sardinian Saint at The Festival of Sant Éfisio
By Cindy Bigras
He was born in Jerusalem, but ask any Sardinian and you’ll learn that today, nearly 2000 years after his death, Sant Efisio is the most revered, celebrated and loved saint on the island. He is their saint.
He was beheaded by the Romans in 303 A.D., and in 1656 was implored to protect the island’s residents from the plague ravaging all of Europe.
He complied, and Sardinians honor him the first four days of May with the Festa of Saint Efisio held in the island’s capital of Cagliari.
We observed the procession in May 2008. It was an opportunity to understand and get to know today’s Sardinia.
Its location, removed from Italy’s mainland, has allowed Sardinia to retain the authenticity of traditions such as the Festa of Saint Efisio.
Folk and Religious Fest
Considered both a religious and a folk festival, the day begins with a mass in the church of Saint Efisio where the saint is said to have been imprisoned and tortured.
Following the mass, at noon sharp, bells toll as the saint’s statue leaves the church to join more than three thousand participants from every part of Sardinia gathered to march through Cagliari.
Viewing stands along Via Roma offers the best view for a modest seven euros. It is here in front of the town hall that the locals watch the action.
Flower Covered Oxen
The excitement is palpable as the first maidens in a traditional dress around the corner. They are followed by colorful carts called “traccas” pulled by flower-covered oxen.
Flowers and handmade rugs cover the carts representing more than thirty communities throughout Sardinia. Each one displays produce and crafts local to its region and woven baskets overflow with colorful flowers. Entire families in traditional dress ride on the traccas.
An Honor to be in the Parade
It is a great honor for a village to be chosen and each year communities around the island vie for the coveted spots.
Faces of the riders reflect the many populations that have influenced this island in the middle of the Mediterranean… Phoenicians, Romans, Pisans, Catalans, Greeks… such is the mix of Sardinia.
The traccas are followed by Sardinians on foot, all in outfits unique to the wearer’s village. The clothing belongs to the families participating in the procession and are a brilliant display of colorful fabrics, laces, and embroideries; spectacular jewelry completes each outfit, everything authentic including the undergarments and footwear
In remote parts of Sardinia, especially inland, it is possible to see older men and women wearing traditional clothing on Sundays.
The fisherman from Cabras on Sardinia’s west coast, always march barefoot; women from Quarto wear lace bridal veils, the men wear hats in different shapes and colors. As they pass by, some groups are singing, chanting, and praying songs from their villages
Marching musicians play Sardinia’s national musical instrument, the launeddas, made of hollowed reeds. It has a delicate sound somewhat like a bagpipe. As they play, the men’s cheeks puff out like squirrels transporting acorns.
The Horses. The Horses
Next come the horses — not parade horses that travel from town to town. It appears that they are owned by the families riding them.
Somewhat unruly, they are masterfully controlled by their riders. They come four abreast, five abreast, or in twos for as far down Via Roma as the eye can see.
The horses are adorned with the same careful and artful detail as are their riders.
The Knights of Campidano arrive on horseback; they are followed by members of the Saint’s militia dressed in orange jackets and cylindrical hats dating from the sixth century.
Each carries a rifle reflecting their role as armed guards who escorted the saint on his fateful journey to Nora.
They are closely followed by the Brotherhood of the Saint carrying the white crucifix. This is the organization responsible for organizing the religious aspect of the Festival.
The Crowd Grows Restless
After nearly two hours of the parade, there is a break in the action as the most moving and religious part is about to begin. The crowd grows restless in anticipation of the saint’s arrival.
To prepare his way, maidens carrying baskets of rose petals appear. The petals are strewn on the wide avenue and their scent fills the air. Thousands of red, orange, and yellows petals are tossed on the pavement.
More maidens and more flower petals follow. It is a sight to see a wide avenue an inch deep in rose petals. Red-robed cardinals around the corner and are followed by the “Alter Nos” on his white stallion.
The crowd of locals goes wild yelling, waving, clapping at the appearance of this handsome man in a top hat given a position of honor by the mayor; he represents the community for the day.
The large crucifix passes by, followed by black-clad women praying the rosary. They are followed by more launeddas; in the distance is the gold carriage containing the statue of Saint Efisio dressed as a Roman soldier.
All rise as the carriage arrives in front of the town hall; the bishop approaches and places flowers inside. As the procession winds down, the journey for this statue has just begun.
Cannon blasts are heard in the distance; now the statue will travel 30 km to Nora and returns to Cagliari on the evening of March 4th when the skies will be lit with fireworks.
As our world continues to become more and more global and homogeneous, festivals such as this are important reminders of a time when people belonged to a place identifiable by dress, habits, and customs.
Sant Éfisio festival will unfold again next year, just as it has for the last 352 years.
The faces might be different, but the intensity and emotion will be the same, allowing us a glimpse into Sardinia’s past and helping us understand the rugged and beautiful island of today.