Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Dec. 2015

                                 The Varia of Palmi

     —Our Lady of the Sacred Letter, the Sacred Hair, Messina

(Varia is a variation of vara, also used in some parts of southern Italy. The general word in standard Italian is fercolo: a hand-carried or shoulder-borne litter or palanquin used in religious processions.)

 The Varia of Palmi is a Roman Catholic festival held on the last Sunday of August in Palmi, a town of about 20,000 people in the region of Calabria. The town is on the west coast almost at the tip of the “toe of the boot” of Italy, only about 20 km/12 miles from the Island of Sicily. The festival is one of those in Italy that involve processions of what UNESCO calls “large shoulder-borne processional structures” and, as such, has been inscribed with others on the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) list of that organization. The town of Nola, near Naples, is also on that list with a similar procession. (See this link for a list of the others and a discussion of ICH.)

The Varia, itself, is the large structure (pictured, right), 16 meters high, carried on the shoulders of as many as 200 mbuttaturi (bearers). Atop this large votive structure are models of figures that represent the Madonna, God the Father, the apostles of Christ and angels. The procession is in honor of the Virgin Mary, known in this case by the appellation of Our Lady of the Sacred Letter (Sacra Lettera in Italian). The procession is the most important local religious festival in Calabria. All religions have curious traditions, and Roman Catholic devotion to Mary (called Marianism) certainly has its share; the "Sacred Letter" ranks high, in my view (for others, see this link). Tradition holds that a number of local (from Messina) townspeople returned to Palestine with the Apostle Paul in the year 42 after his missionary activities in Italy so they could meet the mother of Jesus in person. She received them and then sent them a letter after their return to Italy. The letter was scrolled up and bound with a lock of her hair. Thus, there are really two traditions: one is the Sacred Letter and the other is the Sacred Hair (Sacro Capello in Italian) a single strand of hair from the lock that bound the letter. It is venerated and held on the premises of the
Concattedrale (co-cathedral) of San Nicola in Palmi. The original lock of hair is held in the Cathedral of Messina.

The festive procession in Palmi is thus a much later religious tradition than the general veneration of Our Lady of the Sacred Letter, which has its roots in Messina, itself.
The original townspeople to travel back to the Holy Land with Paul were from Messina, and Messina is said to have received and guarded the original letter through the years of Roman persecution of early Christianity. Tradition also says that the original letter was rediscovered shortly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (which occurred in 475) and that it then disappeared in the centuries of war and natural calamities that followed. The cathedral of Messina holds a version of the letter said to have been through many translations(!), from Hebrew to Messinese-Greek, then Latin, then Italian. The Messina cathedral also holds a painting of the Madonna of the Letter painted by Nicolò Pomarancio at the beginning of the 1500s, and the harbor of Messina is guarded by a large statue (pictured) of Our Lady of the Letter, beneath which is inscribed Vos et ipsam Civitatem benedicimus ("We bless you and your city")—said to be an excerpt from the letter. Also, the fourth-century Roman historian, Flavius Lucius Dexter mentions the tradition of veneration of the letter in his Chronicon Omnimodae Historiae, saying "Apud Messanenses celebris est memoria B. Virginis Mariae, missa ipsis ab aedem dulci epistula." (The people of Messina celebrate the memory of the sweet letter written by the Blessed Virgin Mary.)

The Palmi festival comes about because of a real event in the year 1575, the plague epidemic that devastated Messina. The single strand of hair, the Sacred Hair, in the co-cathedral of Palmi was a gift from Messina in 1581 for aid received during the plague. The town of Palmi then adopted the Madonna of the Letter as their own patron saint as well as the veneration of the Sacred Hair. The actual processional festival of the varia in Palmi comes later, beginning in the early 1700s. Finally, The unusual given names of Letterio and Letteria (nicknames: Lillo and Lilla) common only in Calabria, are from the word lettera.

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