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 usually takes place on August 16th – although not this year – 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.
Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP
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 organise trips with special offers for the 13th-15th August, the idea being that less well-off workers would get the opportunity to visit a different part of the country.
Even today there are often discounts on packages for the Ferragosto weekend – though you may find that train tickets and hotel rooms sell out fast.
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. And as we 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.
Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
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 or Galleria Borghese if you’re in the capital, or one of the many museums and sites across the rest of Italy.
What about this year?
While Ferragosto would usually be celebrated with special church services and religious processions, as well as fireworks displays and dancing under the stars, many events have been cancelled this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nightclubs remain closed and there's a cap on how many people can attend sporting or cultural events: 200 indoor and 1,000 outdoors.
While some events may still take place, especially if they're outdoors, you'll probably find they have limited attendance, ask guests to keep their distance and require you to wear a face mask.
If you're counting on going to a particular event, make sure you check first whether it's still going ahead and what the conditions are for taking part.
This article was originally published in 2017.