Somber and silent—the trees came marching down the hill, dozens of rows deep, with smaller child-sized ones up front…
The crowd awaiting them also was quiet—solemn, as though in a church.
Satriano Carnival – An Annual Rite Tracing Back to Pagan Times
That had not been the case even minutes before, when the Carnival nature of this event was truly in the air. For one, there was the gatekeeper of sorts helping to keep the throng away for the readying trees up the hill. With white face, smeared red lipstick, and black robe he could have won a Grim Reaper in drag costume contest, especially when he shouted out to the mob—“Come squeeze my boob, it will bring you good luck!” He was not posing as Death but rather as a mourner, a Lent, one of the three costumes worn in this pre-biblical ritual—trees who are representations of hermits and bears being the others.
The press corps up the hill had also gotten an inside glimpse of the pre-party amongst the readying trees. There was the distinct smell of a joint. A lead tree of sorts was joking with others—some in full tree regalia and others in half-dressed tree state. Before the procession began it was easier to see and focus on how many of their arms wore camouflage combat clothing, ski parkas for warmth, and had tree head dresses held in place by bicycle tires. Some trees came with manicured and brightly colored fingernails.
21st century touches aside, it is chastening to be there amidst the silently marching trees and pinch yourself realizing that you are part of a ritual that pre-dates the bible. Though timed for the same pre-Lent marker as more traditional Mardi Gras celebrations, this ritual reaches back to more pagan ceremonies celebrating oneness with nature.
Enzo Maranghino, one of our guides from the Divertimento Group and a native of nearby Matera who has been coming to the Satriano Walking Trees Festival since his boyhood, explained that this festival like others in Basilicata where townspeople enact the marriage of trees, is about communion with nature. He said, “Man and tree are the same. There are no classes or other distinctions. That is the message of Carnival. The community comes together in one body that is no different than animals, trees or nature. There are no differences in the sexes. It is about the cycle of life—eating and drinking to celebrate life. “
Enzo continues, “Between May and September in different towns—about six or seven—there are pagan rituals that might reflect Celtic influences where the town enacts marriages of the trees. The old people get a trunk of an oak tree, for example, and the younger people gather the tree crowns. They meet in the center of the village and tie them together. The young people try to climb the newly married trees. It is about the uniting of the community as a whole.”
Oozing Into Celebration
Less like an on-off switch and more like a rheostat, the party side of the carnival emerged as we walked down the path, greased both by festive music and free flowing wine. As the trees file past we hear a cow sound, a trumpet and then accordion flourishes. Accordians take over and flute sounds too.
A serious musician blew into a bag pipe type instrument fashioned from a sheep gut, a zampogna. One after another bottle was passed, and then a small keg offered by a smiling man on a horse-drawn cart. Animal bell sounds seem to crescendo. We are invited to come drink from the trough—a tube actually— of free-flowing wine on a donkey cart.
We are singing…
People began singing along to what we learned was a popular Italian drinking song—“..leave your mother, come with me…”
All the songs are about love, wine and the countryside our translators share.
Carnival Costumes Come Into Focus
Though they were there all along, the carnival costumes come into focus. A young tree woman dances to the beat from her perch of stilts.
Idiosyncratic carnival costumes pop up here and there—a woman as a gift box, a man as a boxer, and many a girl dressed like a fairy.
Fairies of age serve wine. A ninety-something seeming woman sports a neon green wig and flashes a smile. A sleeping baby has an animal nose painted on his small face peeping out from his carriage. We meet young men who found each other on Facebook to help preserve the traditional music of the Basilicata region. They have, for example, learned how to make and play some of the traditional instruments like cupa-cupa—drums filled with water played with a stick.
All the while we move down the street slowly—oozing more than marching past houses that year-round sport tree-themed murals for which Satriano is well-known. One in particular, marks the movie about Satriano and this ritual that is now in NYC’s MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).
At the bottom of the hill we can purchase food and drink tickets just as one does at many large music festivals worldwide. You can wash down yummy sausage and eggplant sandwiches, for example, with even more very local wine.
You won’t find Styrofoam cups here though. You purchase your cup and re-use it. We are, after all, celebrating our oneness with nature. The newer generation now making the Walking Tree Festival happen and that had started putting this moment together many months before has put this modern imprimatur on the ancient rite. It seems more than fitting.
For more information about planning a unique Alternative Cultural Adventure in or around Matera - see the Matera page on the Divertimento Group website.