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Almost all organized activities in Rome grind to a halt in the summer until about mid-September so I was surprised to get an email saying that our choir practice was starting on Sept. 1st. The choir is associated with the Basilica di Santa Croce in Via Flaminia which was celebrating the Festa di Santa Croce (Feast of the Holy Cross) on Sept. 12th and we had to prepare to sing at this event.
Despite being raised as a Catholic, I had never heard of this feast and went to check it out on the Internet. Celebrated mostly by churches who have relics of the cross, I found out that it is a major event in Lucca in northern Tuscany and this year, it was being celebrated there on Saturday Sept 13th. Since we were going up north for a couple of days, we decided to stop there on the way up to check it out. Lucca is a small walled town with narrow streets, one of the few medieval towns in Italy with completely intact walls. We got there on Saturday afternoon to find that the fronts of all the buildings were adorned with candles which were already being lit by about 4pm as there were many to be lit and they spanned three or four stories in places.
The cathedral of San Martino houses a wooden crucifix called the Volto Santo. Legend has it that this crucifix was carved by Nicodemus (one of the followers of Christ) following the crucifixion. It somehow arrived in Lucca in the 8th century and is deeply revered. On the feast of Santa Croce, almost all electric lights are switched off within the walls at nightfall. A candlelit procession proceeds from the church of San Freddiano and wends its way through the town to the cathedral where homage is paid to the Volto Santo. The figure of Christ is crowned with a gold crown and ornate solid gold belt which are normally housed in the museum and only brought out on the day of the feast.
By 8pm when the procession started, the town was jammed with people from Lucca and the surrounding area, as well as lots of tourists. Everything was bathed in candlelight, a very beautiful sight. In the procession were the clergy and congregations of all the parishes around, carrying crosses and standards from their own church and of course tall candles. Then there were representations from various bodies like the firemen, police, hospitals as well as a number of brass bands. The procession just kept going and going.
At the church of San Martino, where there was a choir and music being played, each group came in, went past the Volto Santo and out again. By about 10pm, the procession was still in progress but we were tired after several hours of walking and returned to our hotel just outside the walls. Within the walls, the lights were still off and candles glowed everywhere. I hoped that not all the firemen were at the procession!