What are we celebrating?
August 15th is when Roman Catholics celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven - the day when Catholics believe Mary ascended to heaven "body and soul" after the end of her life on earth.
However, it was a holiday in Italy long before it took on a religious significance.
Ferragosto, the Italian name for the holiday, comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti (the festivals of the Emperor Augustus) which were introduced back in 18 BC, probably to celebrate a battle victory, and were celebrated alongside other ancient Roman summer festivals. These festivities were linked to the longer Augustali period - intended to be a period of rest after months of hard labour.
In Roman times, the celebrations included horse races, and the Siena Palio dell'Assunta, which takes place on August 16th, keeps these traditions alive.
Today, the holiday combines both its ancient Roman and Catholic roots; it also marks the semi-official start of Italy's summer holiday season.
Where’s everybody gone?
It’s traditional to use the August long weekend to take a trip, usually escaping the heat at the seaside, lakes or mountains, so if you stay in town you'll notice it's much quieter than usual.
During the era of Fascism, the regime would organize trips with special offers for the 13th-15th August, the idea being that the less wealthy social classes would get the opportunity to visit a different part of the country, and even today there are often discounts on packages for the Ferragosto weekend.
Will everything be closed?
If you didn’t have the foresight to book a trip of your own, you may be wondering how to make the most of the day. Usually, bank holidays mean total shutdown even in major towns and cities, with everything from post offices to public transport closed, and that's the same on August 15th. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, it's the start of Italy's holiday season, meaning you'll see 'chiuso per ferie' signs popping up all over the place.
However, unlike many other public holidays, on Ferragosto a large number of museums and cultural sites remain open. So it’s an excellent time to visit major attractions such as the Colosseum, Pantheon of Galleria Borghese if you’re in the capital, or one of the many museums and sites across the rest of the country.
So what should I do?
If you decide not to visit one of those cultural sites, there's still plenty to do on Ferragosto. Many towns have processions carrying statues of the Virgin Mary through the centre, and churches will have special services marking the Assumption.
If you're in Rome, the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto with live music and dancing in the piazze is not to be missed, and Pavia is also hosting its own version this year. Meanwhile, many towns, particularly coastal ones, hold fireworks displays in the evenings. And this year is set to be sunny wherever you are in the country, so you can take advantage of the quieter streets to explore.
READ MORE: These are the best beaches in Italy
This article was originally published on August 14th, 2017.