The Festival of St. Theodore

In Italy, everyday is a holiday. Take a look at an Italian calendar and you’ll notice that someone is being honoured every darn day of the week. Today is Saint Peppina. I have no idea who Saint Peppina is or even why she was bestowed with the title of “saint”, but you better believe anyone in Italy going by the name of Peppina is enjoying an extra glass of wine with their lunch. And today is only Monday! Who knows who gets honoured tomorrow?

But those are minor saints. Big leaguer’s like Brinidisi’s Saint Teodoro (Theodore) get an entire week to sit on the throne. Saint Theodore is the Patron Saint of Shipping and beginning Sunday August 27th and lasting through Sunday September 3rd, The phrase “every day’s a holiday” pretty much lives up to it’s reputation as the Adriatic port city of Brindisi throws a shin-dig of one kind or another every night of the week, to include fireworks, religious processions through the city and more.
In particular is the much anticipated “Palio dell’Arca” – a competition in which fishing boats “race” (well, as fast as fishing boat can race, anyway) against each other to see who will arrive first at a point where sits the coveted Ark of Silver inside sits a fac-simile of the remains of Saint Teodoro.

These traditional maritime activities take place once a year, and culminate with a blessing of the statue of St. Teodoro on the water in the Port of Brindisi (which rests on a boat and is accompanied by a flotilla of devotees). When the boats return to dry land, the statue is carried in procession to the Duomo. And if that’s not enough to get you stomping your feet while shouting “halleluiah!” than you’re just not trying.

Now St. Teodoro was as real a person as you or I: a Roman soldier who lived and loved in the 4th-century and ultimately got killed during a campaign in Turkey. As the legend goes, Turkey was NOT the place to be hanging out if you were (a) a Roman soldier and (b) a Christian. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time – Teodoro was tortured and burned at the stake while trying to defend his small outpost. His charred remains were ferried away and hidden in the small Turkish town of Aukat. And the battleground – as apparently happens to many such areas – became a religious place where miracles occurred. (Kind of like Hershey, Pennsylvania where worked recently discovered they had accidentally poured some free-form chocolate into what looked surprisingly like the Virgin Mary).

Anyway, sometime in or around 1210, Teodoro’s remains were secreted away by boat to Venice (which leads us to yet ANOTHER legend that says fishermen protected Teo’s remains from invading pirates and who knows what else before they finally arrived in Venice, where he was transferred further to Brindisi, where – FINALLY – they were properly interred in the city’s church.

By that time, the story of Teodoro grew into one of him being a courageous soldier who fought to the very end defending whatever it was he was ordered to defend. Which just goes to show you, a little PR and the passage of time can do wonders for a person’s reputation.

Which brings us back to the city of Brindisi. Sometime around the late 1700’s the Church thought it would be a good idea to bring out Teodoro’s remains and parade them around. And before you can shout, “they’ll be fireworks at midnight!” – a tradition was born.

I’ve seen this ceremony in the Brindisi harbour many times over the years and it is truly an impressive sight. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like this in the United States. I cannot – for example – imagine anyone leading a religious procession through the streets of San Bernardino County with a bust of George Bush. Not even a thousand years from now.
But I digress.

These days it seems like people need something to believe in, and if the locals want to put their faith in the spirited remains of a Roman soldier in the hops that it will protect the harbour or bring more fish or whatever than more power to them.
The festival of Saint Teodoro is one of many festivals held not only in Brindisi but in small towns all over Italy. The celebration continues each night this week along the port.

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