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Revisiting Festa della Madonna della Luce

Today  a small pine grove in Hingham erupted in picnic tables covered with food and hundreds of people.

The little-known annual celebration was the 51stlocal Festa della Madonna della Luce – the Feast of the Mother of Light.

It takes place every year on the late August Sunday after a weeklong festival of the same name is held in the southern Italian town of Palermiti. The Hingham festival gives Americans with roots in Palermiti the chance to gather and celebrate their culture, their connection, and their faith in the miracles of their patron saint – the Mother of Light. And all of those things are expressed with and through the sharing of food.
The day begins at 10:30 a.m. when everyone gathers at the corner of Pine Street and Route 228 to follow a procession a quarter mile to the festival grounds. Leading the way is a truck carrying a life-sized statue of the Madonna followed closely by the Roma Band from Boston, playing as they march. And then come all the people.

After the procession reaches the park-like grove, at the dead end of the street, the Madonna is installed in a small open-air, stage-like building and a priest holds a mass in Italian. At one point in the mass, all the young children gather on the steps of the stage. As they sit, a woman tells the legend of the Mother of Light, the miracles she performed — her first was the saving of drowning boys — and how she came to be Palermiti’s patron. And the minute the story and the mass are over, the feast begins!

There are no food concessions at the festival, everyone brings their own. All over the grove, people uncover bowls and jars, platters, bottles, bags, and boxes of food. Camp stoves are fired up; a few stone grills heat large casseroles; plates are passed, children and grandparents are gathered, and everyone sits down to a meal together.
My father-in-law’s parents were from Palermiti and both my mother’s and my mother-in-law’s parents were from villages less than 20 miles away in the same province – Calabria. This is the poorest region of Italy and many say the most beautiful. It is a mountainous land on the Ionian Sea.
When my grandmother was a girl, she walked in the blackness of early morning to carry her vegetables to market to sell or barter for other food. Because she couldn’t see in the dark, she held a stick in constant contact with the mountainside so she wouldn’t fall off the path.
When life is that tough, people come to value food in a way that I have never known.
This shame-free acceptance of basic human needs – food, love, beauty, comfort, and money — this sensuality — lies at the heart of the Italian home.
“Giovanna, you want something to eat or drink?” says Frank Corrado as soon as we meet at the feast. It is the same refrain I hear over and over at the festival.
Corrado, who grew up in Palermiti and now lives near Hingham Harbor with his wife and young children, had five or six tables arranged for his extended family. At 5 p.m., when I arrived, tables all over the grove were still covered with food and the dance band was in full swing. (A hundred or more tables are stored in a shed for use on this one day.)
I didn’t join the feast this year: I had a houseful of company at home. But I visited and tasted Corrado’s chicken saltinbuca (fabulous) and felt comforted by the vast array of familiar people, food, and drink.
There were all types of pasta dishes – hot and cold — rotellini, tortellini, penne, and lasagna. There was brochetta; caprese; tomato, onion, and basil salads; shrimp and fish plates; breads and cheeses; platters of cookies; bowls of nuts; whole water melons and fruit salads everywhere; jugs, thermoses, pots, and bottles of espresso, wine, water, beer, and soda.
I’m not Catholic but I believe in the miracles of the Mother of Light. Hey, I believe in every sort of miracle, truly: hers and others. And I see them everywhere. But nowhere more than in the food that comes my way everyday.