Today is Candlemas. It’s the official last day of the Christian Christmas (not to be confused with the 12 Days of Christmas or Epiphany). Around the world, especially in Catholic churches, there are special services and processions.
Candlemas takes its name
from the blessing and lighting church candles on this day. It also has several
other names – the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and the Feast
of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Both of these names have religious
significance which need not concern us today, as it’s the Candlemas procession
which is of interest.
In the rural Italian
village of Ospedaletto d’Alpinolo, 60 kilometers from Naples, there’s an
age-old annual celebration of Candlemas. Every year on February 2nd the people
of Ospedaletto go up the nearby mountain of Montevergine to the Benedictine
abbey which sits high up at 1,480 meters above sea level. This is the same abbey
who gave a controversial Nativity scene, or presepio, to the Vatican in 2017
which was featured in my Advent series in December. Like Candlemas itself, the
celebrations at Montevergine has another name - the Juta dei Femminielli, the
Ascent of the Femminielli.
The Juta is a procession
created as an act of worship to honour the Madonna of Montevergine. The abbey
contains a famous icon of the Virgin Mary, one of the Black Madonnas, so called
because the pigments have darkened over the centuries. Among the many thousands
of pilgrims to the shrine is a community after whom the Juta dei Femminielli is
The femminielli are an
Italian third gender community specific to the Naples area that has survived
the enforced binary gender stereotypes of the medieval period. The community
has enjoyed a level of tolerance and acceptance that is still often denied to
others. Femminielli are male-born individuals who exhibit or possess a feminine
identity and may often cross-dress. They do not recognise themselves as gay or
The abbey at Montevergine
is said to have been built in 1120 on the site of an ancient temple to the
goddess Cybele. Italy has many such temples and we’ll encounter another one in
my “80 More Gays” series next month. What these temples of Cybele had in common
was that their priestesses were either transgender or eunuch.
It would be extremely
difficult, if not impossible, to prove any continuity from those ancient
priestesses to the modern femminielli. When the abbey was founded the temple
ruins had long been abandoned and cult of Cybele long forgotten. There are no
contemporary texts in Italy which mention them or the femminielli, assuming
people had access to any ancient text that existed. The first mention of the femminielli
comes in the 16th century. There’s no evidence anyone knew of the ancient third
gender priestesses before then – they were only recognised as such in recent
decades when our concept of gender diversity emerged. Today we know about
Cybele’s priestesses, and we know about the modern femminielli. We fill in the
centuries between them ourselves on the irrational assumption that the two must
be connected. Other sites of ancient Cybele temples have no similar third
gender community in modern times.
The Juta dei Femminielli
has its origin in a legend dated 1256. It tells of a couple of two men who were
secretly in love. At Candlemas they joined the annual procession up to the
abbey. In a quiet place they held hands and kissed, but they were seen. A crowd
of angry villagers attacked the couple, stripping them, beating them, and
dragging them out into the mountain woods. They tied the naked couple to a tree
and left them there to die from hypothermia or to be eaten by wolves.
In the morning the couple
awoke to find their wounds were healed, their bonds were free and their bodies
warm. A later variation of the legend days they celebrated in the only way they
could – they had sex.
The couple returned to Ospedaletto
d’Alpinolo where the people were astonished to see them alive. The villagers
began to believe that the Madonna of Montevergine, at whose shrine in the abbey
they had all visited the day before, had miraculously saved them. They took it
as a sign that gay love should be accepted, and ever since that day the
Candlemas procession has also been a celebration of gay love.
This may be just a myth,
who knows? Exactly when the femminielli became associated with the procession
isn’t known either, nor is the first occasion when it became known as the Juta
The modern lgbt community
around Naples has adopted the Madonna of Montevergine as their patron saint and
the abbey welcomes their participation in the annual procession and acts of
worship at her shrine - except in 2002. In 2002 the abbot threw a group of lgbt
pilgrims out of the shrine because he didn’t think their noisy presence,
banging drums and clicking castanets in the traditional manner, was appropriate
for a holy shrine. The local community was outraged, and so was the Naples lgbt
community. Two weeks later, on Candlemas, they flocked up to the abbey to join
the Candlemas procession. A similar incident occurred in 2010.
The 2002 incident provoked
a well-known Italian transgender actor, Vladimir Luxuria, to join the
procession. Needless to day, her presence caused something of a media event.
After she became the first transgender member of a European parliament in 2006
the media attention rocketed. Today the Italian media features the Juta dei
Femminielli every year.
Last year the municipal
council of Ospedaletto d’Alpinolo granted Vladimir Luxuria honorary citizenship
in recognition of her services to the lgbt community.
In recent years the Juta
dei Femminielli has become a feature of the Neapolitan lgbt community’s annual
celebrations of Candlemas. They receive a welcome from the local community and
the abbey itself. Below is the poster for their 2015 celebrations.
There are many videos of
the Juta dei Femminielli on YouTube. It may not be what you expect, as there is
no organised parade like you see in a modern Pride march. In its own way the
Juta dei Femminielli is as much a celebration of openness and acceptance as any
Pride march. The main reason may be religious rather than secular but it is,
perhaps, the worlds longest continuously held parade in the lgbt community.