Sant’Efisio’s celebrations are considered one of the most important Sardinian festivals. They are usually held between May 1st and May 4th of every year and they attract an enormous crowd of people, both worshippers and non-religious. The rite is about 4 centuries old and embodies all the traditional aspects of Sardinia, from clothing to music and dances, and is, therefore, an excellent occasion for the tourist to discover the true beating heart of the Island.
The procession is very suggestive and, with its 65 kilometers-long itinerary, one of the longest in Europe. Its first edition was held in 1657 to keep a promise to the Saint (I will talk about it soon) and from then on, not a single year has been skipped. The tradition has been kept alive through wars, draughts, and pandemics, to honor a vow made in 1656. Therefore, let’s now find out about Sant’Efisio and the reason why he’s considered Sardinia’s protector.
Sant’Efisio And The Vow: A Short Summary
Sant’Efisio was born in Asia Minor in 250 AD. He lost his (Christian) father at a young age and spent his early adult years as a soldier, fighting against the new religion’s worshippers until, one night, he had a very vivid dream – Jesus scolding him for persecuting his followers – which convinced him to convert and become Christian himself.
He then got baptized and decided to devote the rest of his life to evangelize the Pagans: he found out that Sardinia still had a huge population of “non-Christians” and started to teach people about the Bible.
Unfortunately, the Roman Emperor Diocletian found out about his religious activities and ordered his imprisonment and torture. During his time in prison, the wounds on his body supposedly healed spontaneously and completely despite being very deep: the news of the “miracle” spread fast and caused a mass conversion to Christianity.
Diocletian decided that Efisio needed to be killed. He was beheaded on January 15th, 303 AD, in Nora. Before dying, he asked God to protect Sardinia against all evil.
Sant’Efisio’s rites are strictly linked to the martyr’s last blessing. During the 17th century, all of Europe became cursed with the Black Plague which, in 1652, reached Sardinia as well.
The legend says that Sant’Efisio appeared in a dream to the Cagliari viceroy in 1656: the people from the city had long been begging for the Saint’s help, and he told the governor he was ready to listen to their prayers and rid the land from the Plague. In exchange, he only asked to celebrate a rite in his memory and honor.
In September, heavy rains came and swept away the disease, and all of the city swore solemnly to hold a festival for the Saint, not once, but every year, without excuses or interruptions. The vow has been carried on, without fail, from May 1657 onwards.
Now that you know the rite’s backstory, let me introduce you to its unfolding and unique charms!
Roles And Important Figures Of Sant’Efisio Rituals
There are three essential figures in Sant’Efisio Rites: the Arciconfraternita, the Guardianìa, and the Alter Nos. Let’s take a look at their significance and their duties.
Arciconfraternita del Gonfalone
This is a group of religious people with the important task to make sure, on May 4th, that the yearly vow is fulfilled. The members of this association, legitimated by the Pope centuries ago, undergo two years of training before being accepted as part of the group. This shows how important the Arciconfraternita is for Cagliari and its inhabitants.
This is a part of the Arciconfraternita del Gonfalone and has the task of escorting the Saint’s simulacra during the procession. They were, in more ancient times, in charge of Easter rites, but they have been moved to this task since the Great Plague era.
A particularly important member of the Guardianìa is the Terzo Guardiano (Third Guardian), who has the responsibility of the festival itself: he is, in fact, considered the rite’s main organizer and the one you should look for when anything related to the festival is needed. He’s also the one who follows the Saint during the procession and monitors the Statue’s transfers (I will talk about the procession’s long itinerary soon).
The Alter Nos is the bridge between the city’s religious and secular parts and the one in charge to represent the government: his Latin name literally means “the other us”, and his role was formerly covered by the viceroy (the “other king”) and is now assigned to a city council member (the “other major”).
It is, in fact, the major who chooses the Alter Nos, and who has to publicly announce his choice in April.
From the day he (or she: women can also cover the role of Alter Nos) is introduced to the population, the Alter Nos has to prepare for his solemn role: he starts taking horseback riding lessons, participating in the Arciconfraternita activities, and choosing the accessories for his costume. He will have to wear a traditional evening dress appositely sewed for him and follow the procession during all of its phases, and he’s on a tight schedule, too.
On May 1st, he has to be accompanied from his house to the Major’s hall, where he will receive his official civil investiture, and a gold medal called Toson d’Oro, an ancient gift (1679 AD) from King Charles of Aragon which symbolizes the government’s authority.
After the secular recognition, the Alter Nos will receive the religious blessing as well. At 11:00 am, in the Sant’Efisio church, a mass in Latin is celebrated to finally give him authority from both entities. He is now ready to perform his duty in the name of the City and God alike.
Unfolding of Sant’Efisio Rituals And Itinerary
The parade, with representatives of the various villages of Sardinia dressed in their traditional costumes walking the streets of Cagliari, starts at 10:00 am. Along the ones walking, there will be some people riding beautifully decorated horses, or sitting in traccas, traditional carriages decorated for the occasion.
The mass in Sant’Efisio church starts at 11:00 am. After the Alter Nos has received the official blessings, at 12:00, the statue of the saint leaves the church.
The Saint’s statue is carried in a gold-plated carriage pulled by oxen in festive garb, accompanied by musicians with their launeddas (traditional pipe instruments) and followed by other traccas, decorated as well, and with the role of escorting the Saint.
For the next three days, people from all around Sardinia will take part in the reenactment of Sant’Efisio’s life and martyrdom. The crowd starts walking from the Church in Stampace neighborhood towards the City Hall.
That’s where the ritual of Sa Ramadura takes place: where the carriages parade on the pavement that’s been covered in rose petals. The procession then leaves the city, directed to Nora. This is the place of Sant’Efisio’s execution.
There are several stopovers in different villages along the way: Giorgino, where the statue’s ritual clothes are changed to simpler ones, and so is his carriage; and Sarroch, where the people stop for the night.
On May 2nd, the statue is carried to Pula and then Nora, where celebrations will be held all throughout May 3rd. Every stopover is accompanied by prayers, rites, and typically a mass.
On the evening of May 3rd, at around 6:00 pma, the statue is brought around the coast to show the Saint, once again, the place where he used to live and preach.
On May 4th the Saint makes his way back towards Cagliari: there’s one last rite to be fulfilled before midnight.
The carriage is changed again to the golden, ritual one in the village of Giorgino and, when the procession reaches Sant’Efisio church in Stampace late at night, the Arciconfraternita president reads a ritual formula to the Major, the Bishop, the Alter Nos and all the people present, saying that the vow has been fulfilled once again, and it always will.
That’s the conclusion of Sant’Efisio festival with the traditional wish “attrus annus!”, meaning “May many other (great) years follow”. Many traditional songs fill the streets, and the city gets ready for the last night of what has just become a mundane celebration.
How You Can Enjoy Sant’Efisio
Here are a few practical tips and information in case you wish to observe Sant’Efisio celebrations during your trip to Sardinia.
Pick your accommodation wisely
This seems irrelevant for the purpose of this post, but trust me: having a room in the center of town, and preferably in the area of Stampace, where the festivities take place, or in La Marina, right next door, is essential as it means you just need to walk out your door to join the celebrations.
Public transportation won’t reach the site of the festival and just as well you won’t be able to get close to it by car, and parking will be an issue across town on that day.
For information on where to stay in Cagliari, read this post.
Get your tickets in advance
Attending Sant’Efisio is actually free, provided you are ok making your way to the parade area super early to find a spot to follow it, and standing in the crowd for hours, at times elbowing your way to catch a glimpse of the celebrations.
For a more comfortable experience and for better views, you can actually buy a seat in one of the various stands scattered along the itinerary of the parade. Tickets cost between €15 and €30, depending on the exact location of the stand and on whether it is covered or not. I recommend picking a covered stand, just in case it rains.
Tickets can be bought online via a site called Box Office; or in person at Box Office counter in Viale Regina Margherita, Cagliari. I suggest regularly checking the site a couple of months before the festival date to grab your tickets. You can also email Box Office at [email protected] to ask for information.
Other useful tips
Finally, here are some final things you should consider:
- The parade is rather long – you will have to make your way to the stand no later than 9:00 am, and expect to be there at least until 1:00 pm.
- Dress comfortably.
- Bring a bottle of water and an umbrella, just in case it rains.
- Don’t forget your camera – best if with a good lens: you will want to take photos of the gorgeous costumes!
As you probably understood, this festival is an essential part of Sardinia and we, locals, truly love it – whether we are religious or not. It’s one of the things every person should see once in their life, so, if you even have the chance to visit Cagliari in late April, make sure to stay until the first week of May!
Make sure to read my other posts:
- The Most Important Festivals In Sardinia
- The Best Things To Do In Sardinia
- The Best Things To Do In Cagliari
- A Quick Guide To Pula
- The Prettiest Churches In Cagliari
- The Best Time To Visit Sardinia