Celebrations in Italy – Festival of San Sebastiano in Sicily

There are many patron saint festivals in Italy, but few can top the festival of San Sebastiano – St. Sebastian – in Sicily.

San Sebastiano is most often depicted as a young martyr tied to a post, wearing only aSt Sebastian statue loincloth, and bearing a strangely serene expression for someone who is stuck through with arrows.  Shooting him with arrows was actually the first attempt at killing him for his Christian beliefs, and after being nursed back to health, he went off to harangue the Roman emperor Diocletian for persecuting Christians, and was promptly clubbed to death.  So, a serene but belligerent martyr he was.

San Sebastiano is one of three patron saints in the Sicilian town of Palazzolo Acreide, about a 40 minute drive from where I  live in eastern Sicily.  I had heard much about this festival and finally the timing was right, so off I went with Emanuele & friends in tow.

The two most intriguing things about this festival are the “sciuta”, Sicilian for the “exit” or when the San Sebastiano statue on a gilded cart exits the church, carried on the shoulders of an army of men dressed in white and red.  I was told that there was much fanfare and it was “molto, molto bello.”   I’m used to the Sicilian’s fondness for exaggeration, and figured it would be similar to many festivals I had already seen.  Boy, was I wrong.

The second intriguing thing, that borders on the bizarre, is that little babies, who are often stripped naked – apparently this is to echo the nudity of San Sebastiano – are offered up to the saint’s statue as a kind of blessing to protect them.  The babies might wear a necklace bearing banknotes that are pinned to the outside of the cart, but donations of coins are also accepted.

Join in the celebrations as these pictures depict how the festival of San Sebastiano unfolds.

When first arriving in town, we are met with a line of bancarelle, stands selling an assortment of stuff, from straw hats to ward off the hot sun to cheap plastic toys made in China to entice the hoards of children into pestering their parents.  Sales are slow.

San sebastiano vendor

But we are looking for tradition and folklore, and soon we find it outside the church steps.  There is a cart selling cuddure, ring-shaped breads that celebrate the wheat harvest in August.  Bakeries donate these breads to the festival, and the money from purchases goes to finance the celebrations.

Traditional Sicilian bread

Soon a band starts playing and a parade starts, and the festive atmosphere heats up.

Italian flag in parade

Festvial band in Sicily

Finally a few loud firecrackers announce that the sciuta is happening soon, and everyone squeezes into the piazza in front of the church.  The sun is fierce and tensions are high – I argue with a tall guy who pushes in front of me, and he agrees to squat so that I can see over his head.  And then the sciuta begins.

The first moments of the sciuta are electrifying.  Some of the men who will help to carry the statue call out with arms raised exhorting San Sebastiano to come out of the church.  Just as the cart reaches the doorway a series of loud explosions are accompanied by violent sprays of ‘nzareddi, colored paper ribbons.

sciuta festival san sebastiano

The continued explosions are deafening and the church is obscured in a swirl of colors and smoke, while people shout and raise their fists in the air.  I’m in the midst of a psychedelic bombardment, and as the crowd surges forward, I lose Emanuele in a whirl of colors. My heart is pounding,  my hands are shaking and it’s hard to keep the camera still.

festival is Sicily colors

 Finally the colors part, the smoke clears and we can see the cart of San Sebastiano!

patron saint celebration

I follow the cart as it is carried through the town, and babies are held up to receive the blessings of San Sebastiano, who becomes their protector.  Sometimes the babies are stripped naked, mimicking the nudity of the saint.  As they are lifted up to the heavens, the crowd rejoices, Viva San Sebastiano!  I’m swept up in the soaring energy. patron saint festival in Sicily

Not all the babies are as thrilled as the spectators.   I almost feel like crying, too.

baby at patron saint festival in Sicily

As the statue of San Sebastiano heads down a side street, the piazza is suddenly overrrun with children frolicking in the ribbons of paper, while a priest and other devotees walk solemnly through the riot of colors.  A few diligent workers are busily dumping buckets of water on little fires that have sprung up in the paper ribbons.

ribbons of paper at festival

Patron saint festival priest

San Sebastiano devotee in Sicily

All in all it was one of the most emotional patron saint celebrations I’ve witnessed in Italy, an exuberant but exhausting experience.

St Sebastian child

I find Emanuele & friends, and babbling excitedly like children, we head off to lunch.

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The festival of San Sebastiano takes place on August 10 in Palazzolo Acreide in eastern Sicily, but other festivities go on for a week.   Check the website for a calendar of events.

14 thoughts on “Celebrations in Italy – Festival of San Sebastiano in Sicily

  1. Fantastic superb shots – wish there had been a video. I love the big booms of the cannons on Saints days and chiming of church bells!

    1. Thanks Steven, I am glad you enjoyed this post and photos. I tried to capture the atmosphere, but nothing can quite compare to being there – hope you get a chance to be in the festival crowd one day!

  2. Ciao Anita,

    I’m so happy i stumbled onto your web site. I am from a Sicilian family, born here and the rest of my family born in a small town called, Mirto. It is so exciting to read your different experiences, and view your wonderful pictures. I feel and want to learn so much more about Sicily and Italy. So Thank you for sharing and I look forward to learning so much more. Grazie!!!!!!

    1. Gentile Giovanna – It’s nice to here from a fellow Sicilian, and I am glad that you have enjoyed reading about my experiences from life in Sicily. I’ll be writing more once my tour season is over, so keep checking back! Grazie e ciao- Anita


    1. Millie- It’s great that you want to take in a festival during our trip to Sicily. You might try a google search to find festivals in Sicily. I will soon be adding a tour at the end of Sept-early October to take in the San Michele festival, which is similar to the one in this post – let me know if you are interested. Ciao, Anita

  4. Festival of 2012, my first San Sebastian festival, exceedingly impressive in theatrics and displayed emotions/religious frenzy. Experienced at night when the ‘sciuta’ was evidently a resurrection re-enactment – more than simply symbolically too, or so it seemed by all the shouts of joy. Strange that, I thought it was supposedly Jesus who was resurrected, not the saints. Priest in your picture tried to open conversation with me, but afraid my Italian was limited to ‘molto bello’ – which it was.

    1. Hi Phil- Glad you got to see this – was it in Palazzolo Acreide? I have only gone to the San Sebastiano festival in the daytime, when the spectacular “sciuta” is accompanied by the loud explosions, smoke, multicolored paper ribbons and confetti. So can’t tell you more about any kind of resurrection. There is a similar celebration going on in the same town for San Michele on Sept 30, when the “sciuta” is at 13.00 hours. Ciao, Anita

  5. Great presentation. Having originated from Sicily and having been back on several occasions, I can relate to your comments.
    However, I would like to bring to your attention that San Sebastiano is not the patron saint of Palazzolo – San Paolo is.

    1. Actually, Palazzolo has 3 patron saints, St. Paul (San Paolo) St. Sebastian (San Sebastiano) and St. Michael the Arcangel (San Michele Arcangelo), each celebrated with a similarly spectacular festival!

    1. The celebration at Palazzolo Acreide is always on August 10, 1.00 pm sharp, though there are other activities beforehand!

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