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Halloween before Halloween: Italian traditions on All Souls’ Day

In Italy, 2nd November is a day to remember our departed and, since time immemorial, many traditions, festivities and foods have been dedicated to this celebration

Every Italian region has developed, over the centuries, certain traditions to celebrate a very heartfelt occasion, that of All Souls’ Day on 2nd November, when – after the religious feast of All Saints, which falls on 1st November every year – every family remembers and celebrates the deceased loved ones.

Before the rise of Halloween, which has the same meaning throughout the Anglo-Saxon world, in Italy too, there were many rituals (mostly superstitious, of course), curious traditions and, of course, dishes inspired by the celebration.

Pan dei morti (bread of the dead), stinchetti (yes, these are actually the metacarpal bones) of the dead, fave dei morti (beans of the dead)… in other words, all the typical sweets of the period between 1st and 2nd  November clearly indicate that we eat food whose name – and often shape – is reminiscent of the dead, an archaic ritual that aims to reconnect us with those who are no longer here through the most natural and common act: eating. This is an act that the living also do for those who no longer can and cannot share in the pleasures of eating. 

For example, in Trentino and northern Italy in general, bells used to ring to call the souls of the dead back to the village and meanwhile, in homes, on the night between 1st and 2nd November, the table was left set for the dead to feed themselves.

In other homes, it was the custom to leave a lighted lamp, some fresh water, and some bread for the same reason.

People in Central Italy in their homes (and today in bakeries and confectionery shops) used to prepare many little sweets that, more or less, everywhere are called ‘fave dei morti’ (beans of the dead): soft almond and pine nut biscuits. Legend has it that they are indeed eaten by the living, but are in fact prepared expressly for the dead, who on the night of All Saints’ Day (that is between 1 and 2 November) are said to return to this side of the world and should be welcomed properly. The biscuits are usually flavoured with cinnamon, lemon peel and a spoonful of grappa or some other liqueur, perhaps to take courage to face a recurrence that might send a shiver down someone’s spine.

Furthermore, in certain areas of the Centre, between 31st October and 2nd November, the ‘sprevengoli’ are celebrated, i.e., the mischievous spirits that disturb the sleep of the living by jumping on them and waking them up.

Also not missing, among the echoes of the past, are pumpkins, which, just as today, were often carved to contain tealights, the small candles that were left lit all night long on the windowsill. One for each deceased person in the family.

In Rome, it was even tradition to keep the dead company with a meal eaten right on their graves.

In Sicily and southern Italy in general, the sweet treats made for the first days of November are actually small presents that the dead leave to children, like the typical sugar ‘pupi’ (puppets). Or, even, martorana fruit, which is not fruit but sweets made with almond flour and honey and then shaped like a fruit, and also painstakingly coloured to deceive the eye. 

According to tradition, martorana fruit was created by the nuns of the convent of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, in Palermo: the nuns had cultivated a beautiful and lush garden, whose fame had reached the ears of the bishop, who then decided to go and admire it in person. Unfortunately, the prelate’s visit took place in winter, probably in November, when the garden did not provide enough fruit.
 The nuns then adorned the trees with colourful fruit made using almond paste.

Fave dei morti (traditional biscuits for All Soul’s Day)
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