Ferragosto: not at work

Some Italians consider it the “real” New Year’s Day, in that it marks the beginning of the end of one season, and points towards the next. And the people who argue this are not without their reasons, especially this year, in this bizarre 2022, with the Italian government embroiled in one of its most convulsive crises in living memory – even worse than the “beach governments” that the Christian Democrats used to put out. But unlike New Year’s, Ferragosto is an all-Italian event.

We can compare it to New Year’s, though, in so far as on the 15th August, Italy literally stops. Of course, other countries treat summer as the holiday season, but it varies from week to week, person to person. In Italy, Ferragosto is non-negotiable. It’s a tradition that goes back all the way to the first pagan Roman festivals, and later to the Catholic calendar.

Firstly, this was when the Emperor retired to rest. The Feriae Augusti usually followed some pretty hectic weeks, and probably some bloody campaign trail. Certainly, it was in early August that the Emperor tended to withdraw from Rome, usually with a retinue and a train of pack animals, which were also allowed to enjoy a bit of time off. A trace of this survives in the Palio, the annual horserace that takes place in Siena on 16th August.

Naturally, when the Christian Church became predominant, it couldn’t resist the temptation to work this holiday into its own calendar. All it did was move the date from the 1st to the 15th August, to coincide with the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thus, from a combination of folk custom and historical religious reasons, the August holidays became set in stone, with broad scope for the exchange of favours between employer and employee. Usually there would be some handout of tips, bonuses, or some other token. Not for nothing is a fourteenth month’s salary included in many work contracts (in addition to a thirteenth month, enjoyed by all Italian employees), while it’s almost unheard of – and bordering on the illegal – for an Italian not to have at least some extra days off in August.

There are some workplaces where seniority depends on age, and where the most senior get to choose their holidays first. The cunning veterans tend to spread their holidays between June and August: in June, they get to escape from business as normal, while working in August is often just work in name only. Around Ferragosto, custom tends to slow to a crawl, and the opening hours are reduced accordingly.

But most importantly, what actually happens at Ferragosto? TV and cinema would have us believe in huge social gatherings and family events, especially in the Italian south, where everyone flocks to the beach with enough food to feed a crusading army. In the north, you would probably find an enormous barbecue, with hordes of friends happy to commit every kind of culinary barbarism in the name of a good time.