Community Festivals: Streets Paved with Flowers

Suzanne H Crowhurst Lennard

The festival of Corpus Domini, as celebrated in Cannara, Italy, with a continuous carpet of flowers all around the town, is one of Europe's most genuine community festivals.

Cannara is a tiny agricultural town of 3,000 inhabitants in the Umbrian valley below Assisi. For the solemn procession of Corpus Domini, all citizens collaborate to design and make a carpet of flowers that extends through almost every street in town. The festival is one of the most complete expressions of community participation. The people of Cannara are justifiably proud of their tradition, which they continue to perfect. Other towns have sacrificed some community character in favor of attracting tourists.

Plucking and preparing the petalsThe process is complicated, and varies from street to street. It may take a month or more to decide on the design, prepare drawings, collect, and process the flowers. Tasks involve everyone, to varying degrees, from the littlest child to the oldest person.

Women and children collect flowers from the slopes of Mount Subasio and fields around the town. Even small children concentrate for hours beside mothers and grandmothers, plucking and preparing the petals. Men and boys are involved in the early stages, designing the carpet, preparing wood or metal stands and cotton foundation sheets, and in the nightlong work of making the carpet.

For a week before Corpus Domini flowers are picked and prepared. After 4 pm each day, when regular work is done, one sees small groups of women and children sitting in doorways and gardens picking the petals and stamens, gathering them in cardboard boxes, each box for a different color and type of flower. Dozens of boxes are prepared by each street in this way.

Many types of flowers and leaves are selected for their colors and aromas. Wherever possible, they use wild flowers, but occasionally, if spring arrives late and the desired flowers are not yet in bloom, or if an exotic color is needed, they buy flowers.

Sometimes petals are used fresh and whole, sometimes cut with scissors into smaller pieces, and sometimes they are dried in the sun, broken or pulverized into a powdered pigment. For pastel colors, petals are mixed with dry white rice before being pulverized. The powder is then strained through a wire mesh to remove large pieces of rice. The pigments are stored in cool, dark storerooms.

Different streets use different techniques. Some pride themselves on the simple, traditional technique of marking the pattern in chalk directly onto the paving, free hand or with stencils.

On other streets a design is drawn in advance onto huge rolls of cotton cloth. These are unrolled and pinned down to the paving. Petals or pigment are then laid on the cloth.

On Saturday afternoon, the day before the festival, there is little evidence that something extraordinary is about to happen. Electric lights may have already been strung across some streets, or a centerline may be marked with chalk or a cord.

Working at nightIt isn't until 8 or 9 in the evening that each street begins the immense night's work. Everyone available participates, little children next to grandparents, teenagers and adults, men and women. Even toddlers who can barely walk want to be part of the activity.

Everyone works together, and the intensity of their concentration through the night, despite crowds on some narrow streets, is impressive.

Everyone seems to enjoy the process, despite aching backs and knees, and there must be great satisfaction in seeing a beautiful, fragrant work of art take shape, an expression of their sense of community and interconnectedness.

In this nightlong effort, traditional roles are insignificant; everyone pitches in to accomplish whatever needs to be done. Generally, men would not be involved in plucking petals, but on this night they join in to get the work done. At midnight, when everyone needs fortification, a traditional wine and spaghetti dinner is prepared, often by the men and youths.

When morning breaks, most carpets are complete; only a few groups are still adding final touches.

By now, visitors, family, and friends from nearby towns begin to arrive. No one, except the youngest and oldest, has slept all night; greetings and admiration seem to revive them.

Admiring the work

All morning, streets are filled as people walk carefully around, admiring each street's work. After mass in the church of San Matteo, the solemn procession moves slowly around town. Only the priest carrying the sacrament walks on the carpet beneath a golden baldachin.

ChaliceFew carpets are merely decorative patterns. Those in which design is of primary importance emphasize not only the pattern and color scheme, but also the thickness and texture of the carpet (using whole petals or flowers). The aesthetic bouquet of aromas, created by selecting fragrant leaves and flowers, is enhanced by occasional spraying.

Some streets use a pictorial, decorative style, minimizing the religious significance. In 1990 one art nouveau style carpet portrayed flowers, bunches of grapes, and a languorous female figure with a fan to create a work of great beauty and artistic skill.

Most carpets tell a religious or moral story compatible with the significance of Corpus Domini. Sometimes these are realistic or symbolic images containing a moral message, such as, "Man enchained by his prejudices, greed, and love of luxury".

Elsewhere, the theme flows throughout the length of the carpet. Often a board is erected at the beginning of the carpet to explain its significance.

In 1990 one street designed a carpet that portrayed the last days of Christ in a series of symbolic pictures that flowed into one another. Christ on the Mount of Olives was represented by a stony landscape with a gnarled olive tree. The crown of thorns that shed Christ's blood, and the holy sacrament were interconnected. They led to the flagellation of Christ at the column, and the final crucifixion, portrayed with great feeling.

Christ on the cross

A great variety of abilities are exercised, not only in the artistry and skill of designing and making the carpet, but also organizational and planning skills, deciding how many of each flower needs to be picked, and delegating responsibility for various tasks. Numerous supportive roles are needed for stringing electric lights, and fortifying workers at midnight.

Art nouveau styleChildren play an important role, and are encouraged to participate in everything. On Sunday morning, younger children who slept through the night are very energetic. They are given all the leftover colors and a special, small carpet of their own to make, where they work with great attentiveness and care. Some guidance is unobtrusively given by an adult, and the experience of working together is good preparation for working the following year on the main carpets.

In Cannara, leadership, if it exists, is subtle. While certain individuals are considered "stars" the emphasis is on the participation of everyone. They pride themselves on being rich in artists, if poor economically, and appreciate compliments and thanks from visitors and friends who enjoy the aesthetic experience, and understand the effort entailed.

While there is, undoubtedly, competition between streets, they are unwilling, or unable to say which carpet they think is best--they consider every carpet beautiful, each unique and special in its own way.

The community effort of creating these carpets throughout the town unites all inhabitants in a common identity--they are the community who perfected and expanded the lost art of making flower carpets.

This intense communal experience, stirring memories of earlier years, anecdotes of previous generations' carpets, and speculation on those of future generations, crystallizes past, present and future in a timeless experience. The festival affirms connections among all in the community, and celebrates life itself.

Community festivals

ProcessionCommunity festivals like Cannara's Corpus Domini are characterized by the participation of a great range of inhabitants. Few are left out. Small children play a prominent role; for them, the festival marks a kind of induction into community life. Women are essential to a festival's success. It is generally the women who best coordinate the skills of many in a creative community activity. Elders are important role models, passing on skills and wisdom associated with the festival. They often oversee preparations, and offer advice.

A community festival is not merely a one or two day event. Preparation and practice go on for months before. All festivals exercise varied skills that involve everyone in a combined effort. These coordinated activities usually produce an object of great beauty.

Eating and drinking together is an essential element of any community festival. This provides an opportunity for many community members to play valued roles, cooking, serving, and cleaning up.

The purpose of a procession is to weave together the different strands of a community. It is important that the processional route leads through different areas, connecting the neighborhoods, different social, and economic groups.

The true community festival is enjoyed for its own sake. Commercial or other utilitarian motives are secondary. Indeed, a true festival requires an element of sacrifice, expense, or loss of working time contributed by each for the enjoyment of all. At a community festival, each individual experiences a sense of gratitude to others for their contribution, pride in their own contribution, and joy in sharing the aesthetic, spiritual, and gastronomic celebration with those they love.