Once upon a time there was the festival of the dead. Many years ago, the commemoration of the dead in Sicily was one of the most heartfelt anniversaries by families and most awaited by children.
Death was not seen with sadness and pain but as a moment of joy. The ancients told that in the night between one and two November the dead returned to earth to bring gifts to the children.
In many Sicilian villages the traditional fairs of the dead took place, streets and squares were illuminated by the lights of the stalls from which family members bought toys for the little ones.
With the approach of winter, the grandparents gave their grandchildren clothes and boots, telling them that the ‘Murticeddri’ had brought them.
The most awaited gift was “lu Cannistru”, the typical Sicilian basket made by hand with reeds and olive branches, filled with Pupi di zuccaru (sugar puppets), crozzi i mottu (bones of the dead), taralli (ring cakes), dried fruit and colourful martorana fruit (from the name of the monastery where these almond paste fruit were made for the first time).
The gifts were hidden in the house and the children, on the morning of the second, went wild in search of the gifts brought by the dead. In the days leading up to the party, the pastry shops had display counters full of delicacies and it was inevitable to be attracted by their spicy scent.
Like all children I loved the feast of all saints and the day of the dead.
At the age of six, the night between November 1st and 2nd, I heard noises coming from the dining room, I got up and saw my mother who was preparing gifts and baskets for my brother and me.
I ignored it and went back to bed. The next morning, as my brother went looking for presents, I showed my lack of enthusiasm to my mother:
– I saw you last night.
Her look and her smile anticipated her words:
– Keep it to yourself, don’t say anything to your brother.
– Yes mom.
– I’m sorry, you are still too small to stop dreaming.
– Quiet mom, in my way I will always dream.
On the morning of November 2nd we went to the cemetery where the maternal grandparents were buried. Like every year, the rite of orphans and nuns who recited the holy rosary for the dead put so much sadness in my heart.
I looked at their sad faces, their dull eyes and I felt a little guilty for what I had and they didn’t. During the prayers I avoided Mom’s gaze, but she came to my side, bent down and spoke to me in a soft voice:
– You should have avoided filling your raincoat pockets with candy. Always the mania to do your own thing.
At the end of the prayers, Mom approached one of the nuns and with her usual discretion first gave her an offering then said something that none of us heard.
I was left with my pockets full of sweets and with so much sadness inside. At the home of my uncles I found other gifts from “li murticeddri”: a sweater, a pair of blue shoes and a red wool neck band all embroidered and many, many sweets including a “sugar puppet”.
That day I didn’t play with my cousins or even with my friends who had come to see me. That day I was too angry, I was sad and I had cried, I had not been able to do what I wanted.
When the grown-ups were discussing while sipping coffee I left the dining room, I was going up to my room when I heard my mother’s voice:
– Get ready to go out, in a while Grazia and Tanina will accompany you to the nuns and you will take all the sweets you have received to the young children. I looked at her delighted:
– Thanks mommy.
Happiness for me that day was in giving and not in receiving. The children of the orphanage looked at me a little wary, then Grazia opened the ‘inguantiere’ (trays) with the sweets and with a wave of her hand invited them to approach the table:
– Viniti, viniti a manciari i cosi duci, sunnu pi vuatri. (Come, come and eat the sweets, they are for you).
One by one, first the older ones, then the little ones began to take the sweets. As a child among the children I was happy.
That November 2 I had truly honoured the memory of my dead relations, I had given the orphans some moments of joy. I went back to my happy mother, but I no longer had a sweater or a scarf.
When she saw me, she first got a little angry and then a bit stern she said:
– I knew you’d give one of yours. I would never change.
For twenty years the new generations have been celebrating Halloween, a celebration of Celtic origin, typical of the peoples of the north. On the night between October 31st and November 1st with carved pumpkins and macabre clothing, children knock on people’s houses asking for tricks or treats.
The two festivals seem distant, but not everyone knows that their deep roots have common origins.
The feast of all saints had nothing Catholic or religious about it. The Celtic peoples were the first to give life to this anniversary.
The Celts divided the year into two phases: the first phase was the awakening of nature which occurred in May while the second phase was the lethargy of nature which occurred in early November. This second phase was called Samhain.
This day was believed to be the day when the world of the living and the world of the dead were closest. Pope Boniface VII did everything to eliminate this pagan rite, but he did not succeed and so he instituted the Feast of All Saints for May 16.
Two centuries later, Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration to November 1st. In the 10th century, the Catholic Church established November 2nd as a day dedicated to the dead.
The coloured and illuminated pumpkin of the Celts and the joyful and sweet martorana fruit of the Sicilians have common roots that are lost in the mists of time.
The children, among sweets and (pupi de zuccaru) sugar puppets will keep alive the roots of those who preceded us.