On the 28th of April each year, the big day arrives. Upon waking, the hamlet’s alleys echo of prayers and whispers. People gaze into the shadows that appear on the narrow streets of the little Italian borgo of Castelvetere sul Calore in Irpinia.
Everyone waits in religious silence for the chiming sound of the necklaces of the verginelle, the “little virgins.” Then suddenly, like ancient souls of a distant and almost forgotten past, they appear.
Young girls dressed as Holy Mary of Grace for the procession and distribution of the “Our Lady’s Bread” or “Holy Bread” or tortani, a kind of bread made especially for the occasion, to all the inhabitants of Castelvetere and the surrounding countryside. To dispense (here another name for the girls is “dispensatrici”) the bread to everyone will take the little girls two days. They fulfill their task no matter what; even under the scorching sun or the violent rain of the Italian spring. They then walk, balancing the bread baskets on their heads, despite their burdensome dresses.
Only on the second day, when, in the countryside, the dispensatrici deal with the steep ascents and slopes of Irpinia’s hills, will they be allowed to wear more comfortable ones. It is a very serious duty for a little girl, but each one of them (well, almost) is enthusiastic and excited to participate in this ancient tradition.
To accompany and help them are the “knights,” men in suits who wield canes to protect the girls. But everyone in the village of Castelvetere lends a hand for the Feast. Women of every age (it is considered sacrilegious for the men to do it) will begin to prepare the Holy Bread 15 days before the Feast of the Holy Mary of Grace. They meet at the communal wood oven and knead the dough while singing old hymns to St. Mary.
Men instead are sent to the mountain near the village, Monte Touro, to get the wood for the communal oven. Others accompany children to the mountain to pick flowers with which to decorate St. Mary’s throne or sew the verginelle’s dresses. All the community gathers around and works restlessly for the big day, the Feast of Holy Mary of Grace.