Celebrating the dead is not only customary in Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries, but in many Catholic societies around the world. Although in many countries people adopt more and more the “trick or treat” way of celebrating this day, imitating US version of Halloween, I want to focus here on how it is still celebrated in parts of Italy.
Some interesting facts about Halloween and the link to the Celtic festival of Samhain (summer’s end):
Historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while “some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which comes from the Old Irish for “summer’s end”. (Rogers, Nicholas (2002). “Samhain and the Celtic Origins of Halloween”. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, pp. 11–21. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. )
In different areas of Italy the dead are celebrated in specific ways
On the 2nd of November the Catholic church celebrates the memory of the dead. Talking about the dead, including them in our daily life, commemorating their life is what is the main intention of this celebration.
“We are born, we grow, we die.” – this is how a nonna in the neighbourhood I grew up in used to talk about it. “Fa parte della vita” – it’s part of our life.
In Mexico, families would set up an althar with pictures of the dead and candles, they would talk about them and commemorate their lives. MKB posts
How the day of the dead is celebrated in some regions in Italy
In almost all the regions where this tradition is still celebrated, we set up a banquet or a dish for the dead, welcoming them into our life for that day/evening.
The day of the dead is celebrated since the Xth Century, when was also celebrated the Ognissanti on the 1rst of November.
In some areas of Lombardy people set a vase with fresh water in the kitchen for the dead to quench their thirst.
In Friuli people leave a candle or light on, a bucket of water and a bit of bread.
In Veneto, lovers would offer “Ossa da Morto” to their promised spouses, a pouch with field beans and coloured shortcrust pastry. – Here is a small video about one of the many recipes of the “ossa da morto”
In Trentino you will hear the church bells ring. They call the spirits that gather around the houses to spy on the living. Here too it is tradition to leave the table set and the fireplace on for the whole night.
In Piemonte and the Val d’Aosta families leave the table set with food while they go to the cimitery. In Piemonte we also leave an extra seat at the table for the dead who are said paying a visit.
In Liguria people prepare field beans and boiled chestnuts for the dead. Many years ago, children would go from house to house to collect the “goods of the dead, i.e. field beans, chestnuts and dried figs, and then would pray and listen to the grandparents telling scary stories”.
In Umbria you can find typical treats in the shape of field beans called “Stinchetti dei Morti”, i.e. “shins of the dead”.
In Abruzzo people leave the table set and as many lights on as there are dead among the family. Children go to sleep with a little bag full of field beans, sweets and confetti, as a symbol of the link with passed and present generations.
In Roma, on the day of the dead it was customary to eat next to a dead family member to keep them company. It was also a tradition to gather alongside the river Tevere with torches in order to celebrate the dead.
In Puglia, the day before it is tradition to set a table for dinner specifically for the dead, because the belief is that they come visit family and stay until Christmas or the Epifania (6th January).
In Sicilia the 2nd November is a very cheerful feast for the children. Similarly to the Epifania / Befana: if they were good and said their prayers for their dear ones, the dead will come and bring toys and sweets.
While the children are sleeping, the parents hide these gifts so that the children can find them the morning after, convinced that they are gifts from the dead.
In Sardegna children and young adults still go from door to door in the morning of the 2nd Novembre to ask for offers. In the past people would give them bread, dried fruit and sweets, nowadays they donate sweets and coins. On the eve it is customary to leave lights on and the table set for the dead too.
How do you celebrate the dead in your culture?
How do you explain this celebration to your children?