The story of Saint Sebastian is very particular and for this reason almost every town in Lazio has a small church, often of medieval origin, where his story is celebrated.
The buildings were placed near the entrance to the village to protect the village itself from plague and aggression. San Sebastiano is still the protector of the municipal police that ‘protect’ the towns.
The young martyr Sebastian had lived during the persecutions of Diocletian (284-305 AD) and was the commander of the Praetorians who were to protect the emperor directly. In his position, he helped many who were being persecuted and saved them from certain death.
He then started converting many people to the Christian religion and at some point, a miraculous episode occurred that made people recognize him as a saint. He gave voice to a mute woman and was seen surrounded by a mysterious light during a visit to Christian prisoners.
Because of his proximity to the Emperor, Diocletian’s wrath was really fierce and had him bound to a log and the soldiers targeted him with so many arrows that it would make it look like a porcupine. The arrows, however, hurt him but did not kill him and he was then treated by a woman, Sant’Irene. Once restored, San Sebastiano returned to spread Christianity in the ‘heart’ of the Roman Empire.
He came to the temple in front of the emperor and accused him of atrocities against Christians. Diocletian condemned him again and this time he was whipped to death and thrown into the sewer. His body was then recovered and buried in the Catacombs of San Sebastiano in Rome.
His worship was so strong that it was one of the few nude figures in the paintings and frescoes that were admired in the churches.
In the collegiate Santissima Maria Annunziata in Fumone there are some relics of the saint: a part of the arm and the head.
The origin of the worship at Fumone dates back to the 9th century when, during a siege, the soldiers cast the martyr as their special protector. The first popular religious festival was celebrated in 1186.
Even today, the feast of San Sebastiano is celebrated twice a year: January 20 and Monday after Pentecost.
On January 17, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a “festarolo” (festival manager) is designated, the person who will organise the festivities for the following year. Designation takes place in the municipal building, by ‘drawing a name from a hat’ (“bussolo”) from among those who submitted their application.
Immediately after the selection the newly elected is informed by the municipal officials usually accompanied by the mayor and councillors, some fellow citizens and by the rolling of a drum.
On the evening of January 20, the outgoing festival manager will hand over to the incoming ‘festarolo’, “la Mazza”, that is the stick surmounted by the bust of San Sebastiano that he will keep in his house for a year. The outgoing festival manager, according to an ancient custom, on January 16th receives the citizens of the town in his home. The entrance door to his home is adorned with a wreath of laurel and myrtle, a symbol of peace, joy and festival, at the top of which a stuffed lamb is placed. During the evenings, the “sagne pelose”, a pasta with anise sauce, is distributed to those present: the first fork is symbolically offered to the mayor.
On both occasions, after the religious function of the morning, panata, a very rustic soup served with a loaf of bread without accompaniments, is distributed. In the evening, after the religious function, from the church terrace, the people waiting in the church square are thrown donuts attached to an olive branch.
After the mass of the morning, the festival religious procession is held: the statue, built around 1696 by the silversmith Giovanni Giardini on the terracotta model of the Milanese sculptor Camillo Rusconi. The statue is carried on the shoulders by some men in the streets of the country.
For the procession, the festival manager must also provide the torches, two large sacred sacrifices offered to the saint and brought by the torch bearer, two girls dressed in the same way. Being ‘festarolo’ is a ‘tough life’ but for a year he is the most important figure of the whole town and the person morally responsible for Fumone’s social life.