Italian Traditions: Halloween in Italy
- WTI Magazine #96 Oct 14, 2017
People often say that Halloween is completely foreign to Italian culture and folk traditions. This is both true and false: rites, traditions, legends scattered throughout the peninsula cover the night of All Saints' Day, which coincides with that of Halloween... but it is much older.
That night the dead return home to quench their thirst and eat, to drive away the wickedness or to play cards, to attend Mass or to pray the Rosary along the streets of the village. There are many beliefs in different areas of Italy. All of them, however, have a basic inspiration: to feel always close to the world of the dead. These are legends linked, first of all, to the idea that life and death are always inevitably linked. But not only that: they also represent the way for the living to continue to maintain strong ties with their deceased. And to feel closer to them.
In many small towns' traditions, especially in Southern Italy, the theme of the return of the dead in the nights between the end of October and the beginning of November is reported. In some areas of the Veneto region, it is said that, rather than for eating and drinking, the dead return to rest: in the countryside around Vicenza, on the morning of November 2, women get up early and move away from the house after having restored their beds for good, so that the poor souls can find rest for the whole day. In Piedmont, in the areas of Val d'Ossola, on November 2 families go to the cemetery for a visit, leaving the houses discreetly, so that the souls of those who have been moved can refresh themselves at ease. On the evening of All Saints' Day, i.e. on the eve of the day of the dead, again in Piedmont, the custom of gathering to recite the Rosary among the relatives and to dine with chestnuts is still alive. At the end of the dinner, the table is not spawned: it remains laid down with the rest advanced - the dead will come and eat it.
In some villages in Lombardia, a jar of fresh water was left in the kitchen, "so that the dead could quench their thirst". Even in Friuli, a lit lumen, a bucket of water and a little bread are still left. In Trentino Alto Adige, bells ring to recall the souls who return and observe their loved ones from the windows of the houses: for this reason, the fire is left on.
Throughout Sardinia was typical the custom of distributing to children on October 31 breads in the shape of a crown, in the name of the souls of Purgatory. It was the feast that was called with various names: "is Animeddas" and "is Panixeddas" in the south of the island, "Su 'ene 'e sas ànimas" or "Su Mortu Mortu" in the Nuorese,"Su Prugadòriu" in Ogliastra, and so on. That same evening, as dinner, pasta is eaten and everyone has to leave something for "Maria punta Boru", an old lady who on the night between 31 October and 1 November goes will come and eat it ... and if she doesn't find it in the dish she takes her hook ("punta Boru") and drills your belly to get her pasta!
The Sicilian children had difficulty falling asleep that night, because they knew that "the dead roam around the house to deliver gifts".
The theme of the dead who gather in church during the night to hear their Mass, the so-called "Mass of the dead", is particularly widespread among the peasant populations. If someone enters the church while celebrating this function, there is a danger of death.
Many farmers in the province of Brindisi (Puglia) used to tell that they went to attend an unscheduled Mass at night. When the function began, they noticed that all those present were "noseless", in fact, they were real skeletons. The skeletons said to the unfortunate ones: "This is not your Mass, comar," and then the women fled away. The detail of the dead who were "noseless" probably derives from the fact that the peasants had noticed that the nose is one of the first parts of the human body to decompose after death.
In Sicily, also, it is believed that the Mass of the dead are celebrated by the condemned souls of priests who deceived the faithful, not celebrating, for greed of gain, the Masses for which they had received money. These souls must celebrate a Mass every year until they have fulfilled their obligation. The Masses are attended by those dead who, through laziness or negligence, did not participate in the Masses when they were alive: the Sicilians call them "Misse scurdati".
In Friuli, on the other hand, it is believed that the dead go on pilgrimage to the sanctuaries and churches far from the inhabited centres, always at night: the stories speak of deceased people coming out of the cemeteries dressed in white and with silk shoes, wrapped in a funeral sheet. Anyone who enters the church during one of these visits would die at daybreak.
And after the night of fear, on November 1st the feast begins:"Fera di li morti" in Ribera di Agrigento, "Festa de is Animeddas o is Mortus" in Sardinia, "Fiera dei Morti" in Perugia, Civitella di Romagna, Palermo, Catania, Asiago, Legnano.
In popular traditions, it is often the poor who brings nourishment and messages to the deceased, because they are considered immune from the contagion of death. The families of Cosenza, in Calabria, send their dead the favourite food through the desperate: they prepare it early in the morning, to offer it to the first poor man who passes in front of their house, who will deliver it to the deceased who, in the meantime, has set out on his way to reach it. In Umbriatico, in the province of Catanzaro, for the commemoration of the deceased, special breadbreads are prepared for the poor, leavened and baked, the "pitte collure". In Paola (still Calabria), on November 2, dried figs are distributed to the poors: they will also feed the dead, who left the cemetery on the day of their celebration to eat them.
In Veneto, on the occasion of the feast of the dead, beans are distributed, while in Piedmont the poors receive the leftovers of the dinner or a bowl of legumes baked in memory of the dead. In Abruzzo, where they are not allowed to fish on the night between November 1 and 2 - because the nets would fish, instead of fish, only dead skulls - a dish of chickpeas is usually offered to the poor people of the town: at the same time, the dead wander around the streets in which they lived, distancing the wickedness.
The commemoration of the dead also has its own food, a sweet made of marzipan, usually called "bones of the dead" due to its shape. Typically Sicilian, it is also widespread in Calabria, Padua (Veneto) and Cremona (Lombardia).