Just a few days ago, the small village of Santa Caterina (Roccalbegna – Mount Amiata area) celebrated an ancient ritual that takes place every year on the 24th of November. This tradition mixes Christian and profane symbolisms and is one of the most characteristic fire rituals in the Maremma Tuscany.
The Focarazza ritual celebrates the martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and a historic victory achieved by the locals in a battle against Siena on the Saint’s feast day.
According to the tradition, St. Catherine was born in Alexandria in the year 292. She was the daughter of a local pagan king but converted to Christianity in her teenage years. She was beautiful and intelligent, with a passion for arts and philosophy. Her Christian faith was so strong that even when she was imprisoned, she continued with her mission and was able to convert more than 200 people, including the empress and the head of the imperial guard. After scourging her, Roman Emperor Maxentius condemned Catherine to death on the spiked breaking wheel, but the torture instrument was miraculously destroyed when the saint touched it. Finally, the saint was beheaded on 25th November 310.
The Focarazza ritual can be dated as far back as the XVI century, although its origins have not been documented historically. The night begins with a religious ceremony: the parish priest leads a procession onto the hill that dominates the village of Santa Caterina and blesses a wood and heather pile with a long Turkey oak pole jabbed into the ground. At the end of the ceremony, a bonfire is lit up and enlightens the surrounding valley.
Once the flames start to die out, the locals challenge each other in a competition: each team (representing a local neighborhood) tries to lift the pole and take it back to the district where they live. The winning team can then cut the pole into as many pieces as were the participants. The wood pieces are then burned in the fireplace at home, and the ashes are dispersed in the fields as an omen for fertility.
Source: Maremma Magazine