What's the story behind Ferragosto?
Today, in Italy, August means vacation, as people take their ferie (holidays) during this month. The idea behind this celebration, and the entire month of August in general, goes back to Ottaviano Augusto, the Roman emperor who ruled after Julius Caesar. Not only did he name the month after himself, but used it to “assert his religious authority.” How? Though he was ruling as an emperor, he was doing so behind the facade of a republic, as Romans had vowed to never exist under a monarchy again. Rather than gain authority and power through imperial means, he sought it through religious and divine imagination. Ferragosto, from the Latin “feriae Augusti” (literally, rests of Augustus), was part of that effort.
Celebrated at the end of the harvest, Ferragosto has roots in Consualia, an ancient pagan festival in honour of Consus, god of the harvest and stored grain, which is believed to go back to the Etruscans and Sabines, pre-Roman Italic tribes. Though the specific dates of celebration in ancient times vary based on the source, the entire month of August was one of rest, festivities, and giving thanks. As with many pagan feasts, Ferragosto was eventually given a Catholic story and significance. It’s known today as the feast of the Assumption of Mary and is celebrated on August 15. Today, many Italians spend the day with family and friends at the beach or an outdoor barbecue. The origins of this scampagnata (short trip to the countryside) can be traced back to the 1920s and 30s and the fascist regime, in which Mussolini emphasized the importance of agriculture and “fresh air” for families, children, and the nation. His regime organized free trips to the countryside for the working class. We see similar efforts in North America, where structured leisure and outdoor play were understood as necessary aspects for kids’ development: by the 1930s, summer camps had become a true institution on the local, provincial, and national scales.
Who had access to the “great outdoors”? When and under what circumstances? In both contexts, we see efforts to create a national image linked to nature meant to symbolize a return to the strength and masculinity tied to the physical and manual labour required for agricultural work, in a time when anti-modernist sentiments were brewing. Interestingly, Ferragosto is presently linked to industrial workers, as factories and industry shut down for two weeks, mid-August, every year. Much like our construction holidays in July.
Though vacations, for many of us, represent small periods of freedom from responsibilities and work, the history of Ferragosto reminds us how authority, nationalism, and labour itself are inextricably tied to our time off.
 Maria Teresa Santaguida, “Ferragosto: storia ed etimologia di una festa, dall'imperatore Augusto ad oggi,” AGI,
15 August 2020, https://www.agi.it/cronaca/news/2020-08-15/ferragosto-storia-etimologia-antica-roma-augusto-9411533/.
Andrea Trombin Valente, “Perché a Ferragosto tutto chiude?,” perpletude, 3 August 2020, https://purpletude.com/editoriale/perche-a-ferragosto-e-in-agosto-tutto-chiude/.
“Ferragosto: history, traditions (and curses) of one of the most beloved holidays in Italy,” Random Times, 15 August 2020, https://random-times.com/2020/08/15/ferragosto-history-traditions-and-curses-of-one-of-the-most-beloved-holidays-in-italy/.
Maria Teresa Santaguida, “Ferragosto: storia ed etimologia di una festa, dall'imperatore Augusto ad oggi,” AGI, 15 August 2020, https://www.agi.it/cronaca/news/2020-08-15/ferragosto-storia-etimologia-antica-roma-augusto-9411533/.
Sharon Wall, The Nurture of Nature: Childhood, Antimodernism, and Ontario Summer Camps, 1920-55 (UBC Press: Vancouver, 2009).