August is a crazy month in Italy.
For Italians, it is often the best month of the year – a time for vacation, family, friends and the beach. But it is also the height of the tourist season, and hotel prices soar to 3 or even 4 times their usual rates while restaurants are reserved months in advance.
The reason for all this excitement centers around one particular day – August 15 or Ferragosto, when almost everyone in Italy takes a holiday.
Second only to Christmas, Ferragosto is a day away from work, surrounded by food and loved ones.
Besides the singular day, the week around Ferragosto is usually celebrated as well, with concerts, outdoor festivals and tons of food.
But, have you ever wondered why exactly Italians celebrate this seemingly random day in the middle of the hottest month of the year?
Believe it or not, Ferragosto is an ancient tradition.
It dates from the year 18 BC when Emperor Augustus created a holiday, “Feriae Augusti” or “festivals of Augustus.”
On this day, he would organize horse races all across the Roman Empire and people everywhere had huge feasts and celebrated.
Incredibly, these horse races have stuck around, as the second phase of the famous Palio in Siena, which is always held on August 16.
Besides its pagan roots, Catholicism also has a hand in Ferragosto, because August 15 is also Assumption Day, or the day when the Virgin Mary ascended to heaven.
Then in the 20th century, the 15th of August took a new turn when Mussolini, refusing to be outshone by the Virgin, organized discounted trains, calling them the “people’s trains of Ferragosto.”
For many Italians, it was the only vacation they took all year in which they could travel away from their hometowns and see other parts of Italy.
Today, this holiday is just as much a part of daily life as it has been for the last two millennia. Buon ferragosto a tutti!