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GUBBIO, Italy (Reuters) - Trumpets blare, women weep and a giddy crowd roars as burly men carrying towering wooden pillars charge through narrow streets in a medieval tradition of pride and devotion to their patron saint.
For more than 800 years, the ancient central Italian town of Gubbio has erupted in a riot of yellow, blue and black each May for the "Festa dei Ceri" (Festival of the Candles) to honor patron saint Ubaldo Baldassini, a 12th century bishop.
In a day filled with feverish festivities that include hurling jugs of water onto a crowd, the highlight is a strenuous race where three teams tear through the town and up a mountain with 400-kg wooden pillars balanced on their shoulders.
The festival taps into a deep-rooted sense of local pride and tradition -- the sort of fierce identity tied to their town or region that Italians are famous for. Gubbio's residents -- known as "Eugubini" -- scoff that even residents of nearby Perugia would not understand what makes their event so special.
"There's a lot of kinship between us Eugubini and this is something that really unites us all," said 36-year-old Massimo Fiorini. "Perhaps I haven't seen this guy here for a whole year, but for one day, he and I are brothers."
The emotion is even stronger for the hundreds of former or current bearers of the wooden pillars known as "ceri" (candles), who struggle for words to describe their exhilaration.
"The only emotion stronger than this that I have ever felt was when my daughter was born," says Matteo Baldinelli, 40, a so-called "ceraiolo" or candle-bearer dressed in a yellow shirt with a red bandana in honor of his team, St. Ubaldo.
"It's difficult to explain, this is something that we have been brought up with since we were little, we've lived it all our lives."
As usual, the festivities began early Friday as drummers wandered through the town at 5 a.m. to wake everyone up, before residents trooped en masse to the local cemetery to pay homage to deceased candle-bearers.
Mass follows, and then the three wooden pillars, each topped with a figure of their respective saint -- St. Ubaldo, St. George or St. Anthony -- are raised upright to a loud roar from a sea of Eugubini packed into a central square.
"When you see the candle arrive, it's incredible, an emotion like no other," said 43-year old Lorenzo Rughi.
As per tradition, three men standing halfway up the pillars threw a jug of water onto the crowd, sparking a feverish scramble for broken pieces that are said to bring good fortune.
The pillars are then whisked away by a team of ceraioli -- eight men to carry it on their shoulders, another eight who provide support, and four for navigation -- through the streets.
Trouble quickly befell the St. Anthony team, whose cero toppled over into the crowd as the ceraioli turned down a slope, wounding three bystanders. Tragedy was narrowly averted when a baby was pulled from her stroller seconds before it fell.
Medical staff rushed in, but order was soon restored and the ceri galloped along again, stopping by house windows to pay homage to the old, infirm or deceased, bringing some to tears.
"This is so emotional for me," Daniela Angeloni, 41, wept as she held on to a passing cero in memory of her father, a ceraiolo who died this year. "I'm doing this in his honor."
Almost every family in Gubbio has a longtime allegiance to one of the three teams -- proudly declared on flags hung out of their windows -- and plastic tables on their doorsteps offered passers-by homemade wine, local ham, salami and cheese.
Communal lunches follow, from an invitation-only affair at a 14th century building where residents dance and wave kerchiefs to more humble cafeteria-style lunches for ceraioli where seafood risotto and bottles of wine are passed around.
By afternoon, residents are stumbling through the street in a wine-fueled stupor as they await the evening race, which is preceded by the sound of a trumpet and sword-bearing horsemen.
The climax finally arrives as the ceri thunder through the streets, with St. Ubaldo's yellow-shirted team first, followed by St. George in blue and then St. Anthony in black.
There is no winner -- the race ends in the same order it starts -- though that's hard to tell from the taunts of "You'll arrive at Christmas at this rate" and emotional embraces and tears at the end, which is followed by more consumption of wine.
"What I felt inside me when I carried the cero is something that no one else can understand -- we're born with it," said Peppe Minelli, a longtime ceraiolo.
"The others could tumble and fall, I couldn't have cared less. I only cared about me and my cero."
Editing by Steve Addison