Why is Good Friday not a holiday in Italy?

Italy is known for observing a generous number of religious holidays - but Good Friday isn't among them. Here's why you don't get a day off before the Easter weekend.

Why is Good Friday not a holiday in Italy?
A cross is illuminated at Rome's Colosseum prior the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) torchlight procession on Good Friday, 2017. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

There are a total of 11 national public holidays a year in Italy – and that’s not including feast days for local patron saints.

So it seems bizarre that Good Friday would be excluded from the list, especially when it’s a day off even in non-Catholic countries including the UK, Germany and Sweden.

READ ALSO: The Italian holiday calendar for 2022

The key word here is ‘celebrate’. You don’t get a day off because it’s not a celebration: instead it’s a day of mourning, marking the day that Christians believe Jesus died on the cross.

It’s known as Venerdì Santo in Italy, or Holy Friday. The country’s Catholic faithful spend it in sombre mood, with many churches cloaking statues in black, purple or dark red covers.

The day is part of Holy Week, which starts the Sunday before Easter Sunday. It’s preceded by Giovedì Santo, Maundy Thursday, which sees the Pope wash the feet of others, just as Jesus did for his disciples.

But Good Friday is a much quieter affair, with no masses held – and the lack of obligation to attend mass is though to be the main reason this was not made a public holiday.

Worshipers attend the Via Crucis torchlight procession at Rome’s ancient Colosseum. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

But, though they might not be called celebrations, there is certainly a lot of pomp and ceremony for a day not classed as a national holiday.

The most famous event is probably the Via Crucis, in Rome. Participants follow as a cross is carried around all 14 Stations of the Cross, saying a prayer at each one. The event culminates in lighting a cross made of candles, which is then carried to the ancient Colosseum.

Some of the biggest processions and other events are held in Sicily, which commonly sees thousands of people parade through the streets dressed in historical costumes, carrying sacred statues and playing traditional music. 

Sicilian towns have their own ways of marking the day, many of them heavily influenced by Spanish customs from the days when the island was under Spain’s rule.

One of the oldest continuous Good Friday events in Italy overall is the Processione del Cristo Morto – the procession of the dead Christ – in Chieti, Abruzzo.

During this spectacle, which dates back to the ninth century, onlookers get the opportunity to hear 100 violins play Miserere by the 18th-century composer and choir master Saverio Selecchy, a native of the town. 

Even though businesses are open, you’ll find that not everything is running on Good Friday. Schools, for example close their doors until the Tuesday or Wednesday after Easter Monday.

Easter Monday, by the way, also known as Pasquetta, or ‘little Easter’, is a national holiday and a day off work for most. The liturgy has passed, the grief subsided, and so the celebrations resume.

Member comments

  1. The main reason is that mass is not held on Good Friday. Religious holidays were granted to allow for people to attend mass on days of ‘holy obligation’. Roman catholics are required to go to mass on these days, such as Christmas day, the Assumption, the Epiphany and All Saints. Good Friday is not a holy day of obligation, hence a holiday was never granted.

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Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Most towns in Italy have a pretty 'centro storico', or old town centre, full of charm and history. But there are plenty of reasons why Italians don't want to live there, says Silvia Marchetti

Charming or boring - What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Italy’s rural villages lure foreigners with their fascinating historic centres and bucolic vibe, but they’re not always as idyllic as they may seem at first glance.

Living in such villages, many of which are depopulated and in isolated places, built around a more or less intact ancient district, has pros and cons. They come with caveats.

The plus points are of course the old architecture and picturesque buildings full of history, surroundings with great countryside or mountain views, fewer crowds, authentic food and traditions, and welcoming neighbors. There is that ‘microcosm’ ambiance that makes you feel at home in a small place.

But one must go beyond the romantic, aesthetic appeal of old districts and look at how practical it is to actually live there.

Last weekend I visited a small village in the province of Rieti called Percile and nearly broke my leg climbing up and down the layers of huge stone steps, which were the actual alleys, wondering how residents could do it every single time they left their homes. It’s like a killer open-air gym.

READ ALSO: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

While some foreigners might view such daily feats as part of their sogno all’italiana (‘Italian dream’), Italians are not as keen on reliving the bygone days.

Historic centres are all structured in the same way: a bunch of houses cropped at the feet of a castle, church or fortress, with narrow, winding cobbled alleys where ankles get easily sprained, and ragged stone steps connecting the various levels. 

The semi-deserted old town centre of Rignano Flaminio. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cars are banned, finding a parking place nearby is hell especially in summer, and the pavements get slippery when it rains. And in small villages where most locals have long left, or return just for weekends, shops, bars, restaurants and pharmacies tend to be located in newer areas or in nearby towns.

In the past locals fled from these places due to harsh living conditions, searching for a brighter future elsewhere. They left behind empty houses, so today many historic centres are partly abandoned and inhabited by immigrants or adventurous foreigners looking for a quiet retreat. 

Italians tend not to buy houses in old neighborhoods unless they have nostalgia for their roots and want to reconnect with their ancestors, or eye an investment like a B&B. They’d rather buy country houses with a garden, plot of land, and if affordable, a small pool.

READ ALSO: Why Italians aren’t snatching up their country’s one-euro homes

My Italian friends have never even considered buying an old dwelling in the historic centre of a rural village; they find it uncomfortable. And so do I, unless I’m sure to have everything I need at hand and at a short walking distance.

“I’m Sicilian, but I’d never purchase a cheap or one euro home in Sicily’s ancient neighborhoods, no matter how fascinating these are. I would not know where to park the car and just the thought of carrying heavy grocery bags and bottled water up staircases scares me, old homes don’t come with elevators”, says Rosi Gangiulo, a pensioner from Palermo.

Crumbling houses in Percile. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

There are also a few prejudices involved too. Unless it’s a unique, stunning town like Civita di Bagnoreggio in Lazio suspended above a deep chasm, or Renaissance-era jewel Pienza in Tuscany, living in the old part is seen as (and often is) the place for poorer or migrant families, while owning an attic in the newer area where all the pubs and shops are is ‘cool’.

In the medieval historic centre of Rignano Flaminio north of Rome, few locals remain, hens run freely amid grass-covered ruins, and entire families of immigrants live cramped in tiny one-room apartments. 

Former Italian residents have moved to the countryside or to the modern outskirts, certainly less charming but easier to live in.

Some seemingly picture-perfect historical centres are best admired at a distance, rather than experienced from the inside. Last time I visited Torrita Tiberina in the Tiber Valley it struck me how most homes in the medieval district were shut, abandoned or decaying, with nobody around. 

I happened to bump into a young Neapolitan man who asked me whether I knew what time the bus to Rome was. He told me he had been living there for four months, focusing on writing a book.

“The silence is great but it’s just too quiet. I don’t have a car and each time I had to buy something I needed to get out of the historic centre. It also became unbearable having no next-door neighbor to chat with.

To be sure old villages are the right fit, one has to look beyond the charm and really evaluate whether they’re livable as well as beautiful.