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The Surprising Lent Tradition in Italy We Can’t Stop Laughing About

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

I’m sure you know that as a traditionally Catholic nation, Italy follows the tradition of Lent, or in Italian, Quaresima. BUT did you know that Mexico isn’t the only country with piñatas? Italy has them, too! And did you know that Italians cut old ladies in half in a tradition that started dying out about 15 years ago? What on earth do all these things have to do with each other?


This is going to take some explaining, but just stick with me here- I promise it will be well worth it!


carnivale-float-of-an-old-woman-in-italy

The first- La Pentolaccia (that’s where the piñata comes in).  The Italian pignata was traditionally a clay pot filled with candy that they’d hang in the middle of the room and take turns hitting while blindfolded. Actually, it turns out the piñata is originally from Italy, brought to Mexico by the Spanish where it blended with local traditions. (Who would have thought?!)


Italian-cookie-in-shape-of-old-woman-being-cut-with-knife

On the second Sunday of Lent, Italians make a very light and simple cookie in the shape of, you guessed it, an old woman! They put her on a table in the front of the room and- this is where it gets interesting- improv actors dressed as nurses, doctors, and surgeons gather around the “old lady”. Someone crawls under the table to do the “voice” of the old lady (which is actually a cookie), and the show begins. Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you, I was 100% convinced my friend Paolo was just pulling my leg! But read on dear friends, I’ve got evidence to share and more details to amuse you!


So the show goes on..the “doctor” is asking the “old lady” what’s wrong. Is it your leg? Is it your tummy? The nurses are getting the “patient” checked in, and the “relatives” of the old woman are beside her, pleading with the doctor to save her. And everyone is roaring with laughter. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Italians made this all up just to get some good laughs in during this somber period!

italian-improv-actors-dressed-as-doctors-for-italian-tradition-sega-la-vecchia

After the “doctor” determines what the problem is, he prepares for surgery. Yes, I’m serious..are you laughing out loud yet?? This is how my friend explained what happens next, “At the end, the doctor doesn’t manage to save her. She dies and they cut her into pieces and eat her.”


Haha, I’m still laughing writing this! You can’t make this stuff up, people. Italy at its finest!

To see what my other group of Italian friends had to say about this quirky tradition, I asked our Whatsapp group what they knew about it and…. crickets! No one had any idea what I was referring to. They were amused that I, the foreigner, was teaching them about their own culture. Within minutes, they were sending each other photos, videos, and articles about it and trying to find out where they could partake in the tradition. It was a beautiful moment that demonstrates how deeply Italians honor and value tradition and culture.


poster-for-italian-carnivale-and-quaresima-festival-pinata-old-lady

Surely every region has its own twist to this very unique tradition. But my burning question, which I’m sure you’re also asking, is… WHY? Where on earth did this come from and what does it mean?


I did some digging and found that in pagan times, a human-like puppet was burned to symbolize the end of winter and to welcome the coming of spring. As the cultural website È Campania explains it, “La Vecchia represents winter and fasting, to be chased away and “symbolically killed” to allow the arrival of the new spring, to revive the harvest and to encourage the growth of new crops. Whether it is a puppet with human features or an oak trunk, what matters is that the Old is sawn, split or burned in a bonfire, but still “punished” to allow you to achieve redemption, almost as if you were practicing a magical ritual to drive away the bad season and invoke spring, which is the hub of the agricultural world.”


Hey, I can get on board with some old man winter redemption…

So there you have it- religion, piñatas, puppet sacrifice, cookies, and doctors, all tied up in a neat little package, even if a bit strange. Now for the grande finale..I did mention I