At the southern toe of Italy, Calabria is characterized by a great variety of rituals and distinctive social practices influenced by the region’s long history of invasions. While the origins of many of these rituals are unknown, they have endured over time thanks to the communities who value them.
One ritual is called Naca, an annual Easter tradition dating back to 1600 in Davoli, a small village or borgo of about 1,000 inhabitants. The unique ritual—marked by a procession through the village of a hundred trees decorated with glowing paper lanterns—is believed to be imported from Spain, but this is not confirmed.
In the Calabrian dialect, the term naca is connected to the ancient Greek term νάκη, meaning “fleece of sheep.” This fleece was used to make a rudimentary hung cradle, very similar to a hammock, for newborn babies. Thus, the term naca is also linked to the verb annacari meaning “to cradle.”
The ritual in Davoli shares the name because this term is associated with a particular statue of the dead corpse of Jesus Christ laid in a base reminiscent of a cradle. During the night of Good Friday, this statue is transported on the shoulders of four men in procession, causing the structure to fluctuate, as if cradling Jesus Christ.
But the Naca ritual is not just a simple procession. It is something more peculiar that involves the entire community in laborious preparation and conviviality.
The Fir Trees and the Lanterns
The preparation for the Naca begins in January. Generations ago, it was traditionally the men of the community who would head into the nearby mountains at night to find and chop down the fir trees. Davoli native Francesco Procopio shared a testimony of an old man, who remembered fondly this excursion, fortified by local seasonal food and storytelling along the way. Nowadays, the trees—standing over twenty feet high—are supplied by a local farm. Once the trees are collected, the community blesses them in a ceremony on Palm Sunday.
To adorn the trees, the community works every day in the late afternoons in a workshop to create hundreds of lanterns (lampiuni). They use specific handmade wooden tools, also crafted by locals. The lanterns have a round cardboard base, holding a cylindrical candleholder made of zinc. This basic structure is wrapped with an oiled sheet of paper, giving the lanterns their distinctive colorful glow.
This process involves the elderly and more experienced people working together with the youngest. The elders teach the youth how to correctly construct the lanterns, carefully explaining and showing all the steps. It’s a prime example of how a small community has maintained its cultural identity by getting the new generation actively involved in a creative, social, and joyous tradition.
Once that the lanterns are created, they will be carefully kept until Easter to be hung on the trees on the night of Good Friday. This ritual is called vestitura, literally meaning “to get dressed.”
The Events of Good Friday
On Good Friday, Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus and his death at Calvary. It is a day of solemn ritual.
Before performing the Naca at night, the community of Davoli prepares with a series of preceding events. From 1 to 3 p.m., young people (ages ten to fifteen) start by playing a traditional wooden instrument called carice to warn the village inhabitants that Jesus Christ was going to breathe his last breath. A bigger carice is played in the Church of St. Barbara Matrice.
At 8 p.m. at the church, the priest starts a homily about the Passion of Jesus Christ, while a part of the community is involved in getting the hundred fir trees “dressed.” They repeat a line of commitment: “Vestimu l’abito e portamu l’abito”—we get the tree dressed, and we will bear it. Just before 10 p.m., they place the trees along the road leading to the Church of St. Peter and light the candles in the lanterns.
When the procession begins, the whole community—men, women, and children—hoist the decorated trees on their shoulders. If they are too heavy, people use wooden planks to distribute the weight. There is a logical structure to the sequence of the procession: first, the most beautiful decorated tree opens and serves as a guide. This tree is followed by the Naca, the statue of Jesus in the cradle, and then the marching band playing sad melodies. Soon after, the cross appears followed by the rest of the trees with their bearers and the whole community of Davoli. Finally, a last tree closes this long cortège.
People solemnly sing traditional religious songs—some in dialect—while walking in and around the peripheries of the village. From afar, neighboring villages get a panoramic view of the luminous spectacle. Given that walking the entire route takes about two hours, the tree-bearers have to rotate sometimes due to the incredible weight of the trees. Their journey ends back at the Church of St. Peter.
Once the procession is completed, the lanterns are extinguished by dropping the trees on the ground. In that moment, you can see the pride in the faces of the community members: they have renewed their ancient tradition.
“The Naca represents our souls,” agree Francesco Procopio and Evelino Ranieri, director of the Naca workshop. “Each year when we perform it, we all experience a sense of well-being.”
The Symbolism of the Naca
Important symbols emerge from this ritual: the trees, the fire, and the act of bearing the tree.
In many cultures, trees have always been powerful symbols of life, death, and renewal. Some are deemed sacred, so the use of trees in the ritual of the Naca is not surprising. In this particular ritual, the trees can be interpreted as “cosmic” trees—namely, an axis connecting the Underworld, Earth, and Heaven. For the residents of Davoli, it symbolizes the means through which they can overcome their base nature and ascend toward spiritual illumination.
The firelight of the lanterns attests the presence of God, hope, and life, as well as the concepts of purification and regeneration in line with the meaning of Easter.
Becoming tree-bearers, according to the locals, represents an act of faith. The weight of the tree symbolizes the immersive experience of Jesus and the cross at the Calvary. Evelino highlights that all people in Davoli, at least once in their lives, have been tree-bearers. This unforgettable experience marks them as belonging to this distinct community.
The preparation and the ritual itself represent a peculiar social practice, and the small community of Davoli is a valuable example of how people can keep a tradition alive, transmitting it to future generations and adding value to it. Since 1600, this community has regenerated itself, bringing to life its cultural identity in one of the most enchanting ways.
Dr. Barbara Mordà is vice president of MEDFORT – Centro Studi, a nonprofit organization in Italy that aims to preserve and enhance military heritage in the Mediterranean. She also runs The Heritage Call platform, posting creative texts and stories on cultural heritage from around the world. She holds a PhD in classical and archaeological studies from the University of Kent.