The harvest is complete, work in the fields is done and summer is over. And as the nights draw in and we settle down with our fluffy slippers for the colder, darker half of the year, people around the world are preparing for 3 days dedicated to the dead. But what do Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day mean for Italians?
Halloween, All Hallows Eve or All Saints’ Eve – 31st October
The origins of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, are disputed. It may date back to the Ancient Roman end-of-harvest feast for Pomona the tasty goddess of fruits and seeds. Others suggest that it came from the Ancient Roman Parentalia festival of the dead. While many believe that it’s a Christianised version of the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain marking the end of summer and beginning of winter.
Either way, the festival hovers between the worlds of the living and the dead, light and dark, summer and winter, using humour, jokes and “tricks”, to mock death and confront its power.
For Italians, however, Halloween is a relatively new craze. You can find Halloween sweets in some of the larger cities like Venice or Florence and some families take their children trick or treating whilst bars and clubs host Halloween nights. But you’re unlikely to see as many pumpkin lanterns carved with grotesque designs to ward off evil as you would in the UK or USA.
Ultimately this is not an authentic Italian festival although it’s gradually being adopted to the amusement of youngsters and the dismay of the new Pope. Francesco believes that Halloween encourages devil worship suggesting last year that it be changed to Holyween, with kids dressing up as saints instead of evil spirits. Sadly for Francesco, though, I don’t see Holyween catching on any time soon!
Ognissanti, All Hallows Day or All Saints’ Day – November 1st
Ognissanti is highly significant for Roman Catholics around the world as they gather to celebrate saintliness, honour the saints (or hallows, hence All Hallows Day) and commemorate martyrs of the Christian church. All Saints Day is believed to have originated in the 3rd or 4th century with Pope Gregory IV making it a Catholic holiday in 835 AD. More recently, in 1949, the Italian Constitution placed All Saints’ Day among those considered “holidays” with a prohibition on carrying out certain legal acts.
Ognissanti is a holy day of obligation for catholics, which for some includes a vigil for the saints, and is closely linked to Il Giorno dei Morti, the day of the dead. In fact the link between the two days is so close that celebrations almost run into eachother!
Il giorni dei morti, the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day – November 2nd
All Souls Day begins at dawn with a requiem mass for the dead. And although people held festivals for the dead long before Christianity began, today’s commemorations date back to the 10th century when Saint Odilo, Abbot of the monastery in Cluny, France, suggested the celebration of the dead.
Church bells toll while Italians give alms and prayers for the dead, particularly those souls stuck in purgatory. Many people clean and decorate the graves of family members with flowers, usually chrysanthemums, and candles although this practice is less common than in the past.
But much like Halloween, All Souls Day is also a day for fun and, more importantly, food.
In regions such as Piedmonte and Lombardia people believe that the souls of the dead come into communication with the living on All Souls Day and therefore make food for them, set a place for them at the dining table or leave bottles of water for them to drink.
Sicillian children leave their shoes outside doors and windows whilst praying for the souls of the dead hoping that they will be filled with gifts. Crunchy, clove-scented cookies called “bones of the dead” are also made in Sicily especially for the day.
Meanwhile, further north, in Rome couples traditionally announce their engagement on All Souls Day.
And the Veneto region celebrates the dead with sweet almond fava or fave dei morti (beans of the dead) biscuits and cotognata sweets of sugared “dulce de membrillo” or quince apple jelly made with the pulp of the mela cotogna fruit. Legend has it that fava beans, which the biscuits are intended to represent, were a direct line of communication between the dead and living worlds. And in fact reference to lava beans as part of the funeral ceremony dates back to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and even Peruvians so this is clearly an ancient rite associated with the dead.
Ultimately, the solemn, serious meanings of each of the 3 festivals to the dead are gradually changing, with the religious origins increasingly take second place. This time of year is often the backdrop to truffle fairs, music and cultural festivals and a host of events marking the end of summer and the start of the performing arts season so there is plenty to occupy locals and visitors. But although the rituals and rites may change over the years Italians still place great importance on respecting their dead.
So what will you be doing? Have you got your witch costume ready for Halloween or will you be commemorating the spirits of your deceased relatives? If you have a traditional way of marking this important crossing point between light and dark, summer and winter, life and death, share it by leaving a comment below. And in the meantime I can heartily recommend tracking down the ghosts and ghouls of Venice on Halloween night with a ghost tour! Happy Halloween everyone!
Ghost tours and other guided walks around Venice can be organised with Secret Venice here