Though Saint Agatha was worshipped immediately following her death, today’s festival traditions developed more recently.
It was February 4th, 1519 when the Saint’s relics were brought through the city in a procession. After the unification of the Spanish Empire, there was a necessity to consolidate the faith and offer the population a highly appealing festival in response to the threat of Islamic religion and above all the reformist movement, both of which were disturbing all of Europe.
There are two festivals now: the main one from the February 3rd through 6th and the small one on 17th August and there used to be another one on June 17th.
In February, we celebrate the memory of of Agatha’s martyrdom and death. The August celebration marks the return of the relic to their rightful home, Catania, after a period in Constantinople. The festival in June was connected to Saint Agatha as protector against the Black Death and was abolished after the second Vatican Council in 1962.
At first the casket was carried on shoulders of devotees but later a massive cart were constructed to make easier carrying of the heavy casket. The newest version you can see nowadays has half cylinders instead of wheels to support better the weight.
One of the important parts of the procession has always been the use of candeloras. Candeloras are huge vessels, about 3-4 meters high, decorated with gold, statues and scenes from the saint’s life.
In the 16th century, were 22 candeloras, and this number eventually grew to 28. Now, we use 11-12 candeloras in the festival. The candeloras represent the various guilds of Catania, and the order in which they parade was officially established in 1522 to avoid fights among the guilds. However the challenge (see the program for February 3rd, below) still persists.
The festival is regularly celebrated every year, though, throughout history, certain circumstances have prevented the festival from occurring in some years. After the horrible earthquake in 1693, for example, no festivals were held for more than 20 years. The last time the festival was suspended was in 1991 because of the Persian Gulf War.