Pasqua, the Italian word for Easter, dates back to 1342, when it referred to the "festa che commemora la liberazione dalla schiavitù d'Egitto" (feast that commemorates the liberation from Egyptian slavery). Lamb or "paschal" blood had marked the doors of Hebrew families exiled in Egypt and spared their first-born sons. Somewhere in time Pasqua became synonymous with the Christian celebration of Easter.
"Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi" (Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever you want), Italians say. An invitation to Easter dinner with friends in Italy is a special treat indeed. After forty days of fasting during Quaresima (Lent), Italians celebrate with foods that form a mouth-watering vocabulary of their own.
Throughout Italy the traditional main dish is agnellino al forno (roasted baby lamb) or capretto (baby goat). Rome’s Easter specialty is abbacchio, a suckling lamb no more than a month or so old. Because it has ingested only its mother’s milk, its meat is especially tender.
The name comes from the Latin baculum, the cudgel used to kill lambs. Until a few decades ago, shepherds would lead their flocks into Rome every Spring so people could select victims for the annual slaughter. The word abbacchiato became slang for someone beaten down, physically or mentally.
“Pasta matta” (crazy dough) encases torta Pasqualina (Easter cake), a savory pie from Piedmont and Liguria with whole eggs baked inside.
Italy’s traditional Easter dessert is Colomba cake, a sweet, eggy, yeasted bread topped with sugared and sliced almonds. Commercial bakers shape this confection into a colomba (dove), the symbol of peace and renewal, but home bakers usually do an oval approximation.
I’ve tried (without success) to explain the popular American Easter symbols of bunny rabbits and hard-boiled eggs to Italian friends. In Italy uova di Pasqua (Easter eggs) come only in chocolate. Festive displays decorate coffee bars, pastry shops, supermarkets, and confectioneries in the weeks before Easter, with some mammoth eggs weighing in at nearly 18 pounds.
Although most commercial eggs contain a child’s toy or trinket, Easter eggs aren’t just for the kids (bimbi) in Italy. In the 15th century nobles encased works of art and other extravagances in enormous chocolate eggs.
The very best modern eggs are still handmade by a cioccolataio, an artisan of chocolate, who will insert a surprise supplied by the purchaser. Inside a customized egg a lucky recipient may find jewelry, a watch, car keys—or an engagement ring. This in itself may explain why “felice come una Pasqua” (literally happy as an Easter) translates into “happy as can be.”
Words and Expressions
vigilia di Pasqua -- Easter eve
il coniglietto -- bunny rabbit
l'agnello pasquale -- the Easter lamb
colomba di Pasqua -- Easter cake
Dianne Hales is author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
My most memorable Easter ceremony was an open-air Mass at Saint Peter's. Click below for the Vatican's video of last year's celebration with Papa Francesco: