The festival of St. Antonio di Vassalini

by Saveria Masa

On 13 June every year, the people of the hamlet of Vassalini of Chiesa Valmalenco celebrate St. Antonio di Padova, co-patron saint together with St. Stefano, of the very beautiful church, built in the centre of the village in 1666-68.

The festival of St. Antonio has always been popular with the residents and continues to represent one of the liveliest expressions of popular faith in the Valmalenco. Up until a few decades ago, they began to prepare and announce the festival at least one week beforehand, by ringing the church's one and only bell at eventide: "it rang out for joy!". The boys and young men competed to see who would be the first to ring it! The church was decorated in readiness: this was the most important opportunity of the entire year to display the precious, gold and silver embroidered, eighteenth century altar frontal, depicting St. Antonio da Padova in the centre. They also opened the gratings, behind which they kept the reliquaries. On the morning of the festival, a sung Mass was the highlight for the inhabitants of the hamlet of Vassalini. After Mass, they held the charity auction in the square in front of the church (ciàzza de S. Antòni), and autioned cheeses or the traditional piòde of the Valmalenco. The religious festival then continued in the afternoon with the blessing and display of the reliquaries of St. Antonio.

This ancient festival was also very popular with the inhabitants of the other districts of Chiesa and the surrounding Comunes which, over time, turned into the village, folk festival of the trade fair, the traditional "Fiera di S. Antonio", which became and still is one of the most popular, most well-known local events of the entire Valmalenco. The fair was held in the church square, on the nearby river bank (la riva de ciàzza) and in the meadows below. They would sell a bit of everything, including farmyard animals, because it was a chance for the people of the valley to find goods which where unusual or difficult to find in the valley. They sold hardware and, above all, agricultural tools and utensils to process milk and produce butter. There were stalls with aprons (i scusäi) and handkerchiefs(i panèt) for the women, and for the children the fair was one of those rare occasions to buy something sweet, such as those delicious sugar pipes every child desired, biscuits and nougat.

As the decades passed, the fair of St. Antonio became one of the annual events for the entire population of the Valmalenca and an attraction for villages outside the valley. As a result, the tiny square in Vassalini became too small to take an increasingly large flow of visitors. During the Second World War, it was moved to the main road and then to the sports field in Vassalini. Both the festival and the fair were moved to the closest Sunday to 13 June. Towards the end of the forties, merry-go-rounds came to the fair for the first time ever in Valmalenco!

In more recent years, the fair has returned once again to the road between Vassalini and Chiesa Valmalenco, and has expanded as far as the district of Faldrini. It remains a major event for local residents and is an attraction for both tourists and the inhabitants of the Valtellina alike. The festival of the patron saint, however, has gone back to the original day dedicated to it, 13 June, and is celebrated with Holy Mass and the blessing of the bread to be distibuted to those taking part.

Vassalini in the early 20th century