On May 15, candles will race again along the streets of Gubbio, Umbria. It’s a tradition that began approximately in 1160, when bishop and patron Saint Ubald died – or was “born again”, as Christians would say. The Race of the Candles has been held in his honor ever since.
Writer Guido Piovene (1907-1974) described the event saying, “Gubbio’s religious life has basically prolonged over the centuries keeping the same atmosphere intact. The sanctuary of Saint Ubald – a 12th-century bishop who performed miracles and exorcisms – rises at the top of Mount Ingino, against which the town has grown. The Race of the Candles is one of the few folk and religious festivals that have survived to this day with truly felt participation, and have nothing to do with touristic revivals.”
Piovene – quoted in Luca Clerici’s book, “Il viaggiatore meravigliato. Italiani in Italia (1714-1996)” (Il Saggiatore, Milan 1999) – then goes into the details of the event: “Three tall, massive wood and iron towers, weighing several tons, are placed on stretchers. Each one has the statue of a saint on it: Saint Ubald for bricklayers, Saint George for retailers, and Saint Anthony the Abbot for farmers. They are carried around town following a complicated ceremony. The carriers dress in lively, different colors depending on the saint they ‘belong’ to. In the evening, before dusk, they charge the steep slopes of Mount Ingino, running all the way to the Franciscan sanctuary of Saint Ubald on the top. Once there, they put down three large candles meant to stay there the entire year. Gubbio’s able men take turns during the race… And waiving the opportunity is considered unmanly…”