ROME – For most Americans, the Monday following Easter is just another day at the office. For countries shaped by centuries of Catholic tradition, however, it’s a much bigger deal than that, and in Italy is known formally as lunedi dell’Angelo, or “Monday of the Angel,” and informally by pretty much everyone here as Pasquetta, or “little Easter.”
The reference to an angel evokes the Gospel scene of an angel encountering several women who followed Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome, outside Christ’s empty tomb, where they had gone to perfume his dead body with oils after it had been removed from the Cross.
According to the Gospel of Mark, they instead encountered an angel, who told them: “Don’t be afraid! You’re seeking Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one. He is risen, he’s not here.”
(Based on the Gospel sequence, that encounter actually happened the morning of Easter, but likely was fixed for Monday in Christian tradition because the text uses the phrase “the day after,” referring not to Easter but to the Jewish observance of Passover.)
Easter Monday is actually a holiday in all or parts of 118 countries, though it’s not always marked on the same date, since in Orthodox nations following the Julian, rather than Gregorian calendar, there’s a different date for Easter and hence for Easter Monday.
Yet nowhere, probably, is it such a cherished tradition as in il bel paese. Up and down the country, Pasquetta is a day in which most things shut down and no one works, except providers of essential services and some restauranteurs and waiters. For once, the normally clogged and frenetic Roman streets are largely quiet, and life itself seems to go on holiday.
Pasquetta is also a holiday in the Vatican, though not entirely for the pope, since he’s still expected to deliver a noontime Regina Coeli address from the window of the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square. (In Catholic tradition, the Regina Coeli is the prayer said at noon each day in the Easter season rather than the usual Angelus.)
On the other hand, it’s not an overly taxing exercise for most popes – last year, Francis’s address on Pasquetta was a little over 500 words long and required about 15 minutes to deliver, with the prayer included.
For Italians, Pasquetta is one of the most anticipated days of the year, although to be honest it’s preserved little of its religious or spiritual significance.
“It’s a chance to extend the Easter festivities as long as possible, frankly,” said Delia Gallagher, CNN’s Vatican correspondent, who’s lived and worked in Italy for some time. “It’s a typical Italian thing, if one day off is good, two are better!”
In fact, Italians also typically take off the day after Christmas and the day after the feast of Pentecost, both of which are holidays here and often with the same logic – to keep the relaxed times rolling for 24 more hours.
Marc Carroggio, the Rome-based coordinator of the communications office for Opus Dei, and a Catalan who’s also lived in Rome for many years, agreed.
“It’s really a chance to be with friends, since for Italians, Easter is for family, but Pasquetta is for friends, the people you couldn’t be with on Easter,” Carroggio said. “It’s a day for digesting the Easter cake, and given the heavy cake Italians usually eat, nobody could start working again right away!”
Nothing is quite so typical of Pasquetta as the Italian scampagnata, meaning an open-air picnic someplace. Quite often, the offerings will be made up of food left over from Easter, including the traditional servings of agnello, or lamb, originally associated with the image of Christ as the lamb of God.
Whatever else Pasquetta may represent in the Italian imagination, observers say that these days it has little to do with faith.
“The religious day is Easter, not Pasquetta,” Carroggio said.
Gallagher agreed, saying that after the major spiritual observances of Holy Week, when a large share of Italians still somehow find their way to church, to keep the family peace if for no other reason, people aren’t looking for another spiritually charged day.
“After all the days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter vigil on Holy Saturday, and then Easter itself, after all that, they need a day off,” she said.
Again, Carroggio agreed.
“People here go to Mass on Easter,” he said. “They don’t on Pasquetta.”
For those of a spiritual frame of mind, however, it is possible to spot the roots of Pasquetta in Christian faith. The much-loved picnic, for instance, ultimately has its roots in the Gospel account of Jesus encountering the disciples on the way to Emmaus, who, according to tradition, later on had an “open-air” meal.
“That’s Italy for you,” Gallagher said. “Even when most people have forgotten completely, that Catholic thing is still there, if you know where to look.”