Sicily is a land full of traditions that without any doubt can be defined as unique. And even if as time goes by many customs tend to disappear and exist only in our memory, other ones are still alive. Maybe they evolve and change, but they survive. The Day of the Dead is one of them.
November 2nd is the day known as All Souls’ Day, a moment that is dedicated to our own loved ones that are no longer with us while honoring them with prayers and visits to the cemetery. But in Sicily, according to most, this date is known as the Day of the Dead.
I remember that often my mother told me about her childhood and how this holiday was not only very heart-felt but also how kids used to wait for it in trepidation, just like Christmas. In fact, in the past, parents used to tell their children that, if they were good during the year, in the night between November 1st and 2nd, they would have gotten presents from the dead. In the morning, the treasure hunt started, and every single room was sifted through. Gifts were hidden in the most bizarre places, whereas a basket full of sweets was generally put in plain sight. The incentive that kids had to run to bed, in addition to toys, was the threat to have their little feet ground down with a sort of cheese grater by the dead if they were awake in the night.
Even if it was (and it still is) a religious holiday, its origins are linked with ancient pagan rituals, nowadays the essence of these roots persist in the mood with which this holiday is lived: no sadness and no fear because of the deceased that, on the contrary, deserve to be remembered in their happiest and most expressive image. Therefore, it’s fundamental to enjoy the day while considering it as a connection with the afterlife.
The Day of the Dead in Sicily, now as then, is celebrated with lots of happiness, and even if the tradition to look for presents all around the house has almost disappeared, the colored confectionary world that rotates around November 2nd still survives.
From the sugar dolls (in the past shaped as a doll or a paladin, nowadays you can find them in many other shapes) to the deads’ bones (hard cookies spiced with cinnamon), from the famous marzipan fruit (decorated almond dough) to the tetù & teio (other cookies with chocolate or sugar frosting) and taralli (soft donuts covered with lemon icing), dried fruits and the rame di Napoli (cookies covered with chocolate, they can be either empty or stuffed with apricot jam or chocolate cream). In some areas of the island, on the Day of the Dead, it’s common to also make the so called muffoletta, a warm loaf that in the morning of All Souls’ Day, is flavored (in Sicilian, cunzata) with oil, salt, pepper and oregano, anchovies and some slices of cheese primosale.
The jovial atmosphere of this day is felt everywhere, especially if you visit the fairs that are organized in several cities and towns in all the provinces to celebrate this holiday. It’s an opportunity to discover more about this date, while living it through Sicilian colors and flavors. It’s important to even involve kids that more and more nowadays know Halloween but don’t know a lot about the Day of the Dead with which their parents and grandparents grew up.
But, even if Halloween – a pagan holiday typical of the Anglo-Saxon world celebrated on October 31st – seems to be very far from our traditions, on the contrary it has something in common with the Sicilian Day of the Dead.
In the United States, in fact, everybody knows that children roam about the streets of the city dressed in monstrous costumes with macabre masks and hunt for candies and sweets, while blackmailing their neighbors with the well-known trick-or-treat. This custom dates back to the Middle Ages when, during the All Saints’ Day (November 1st), poor people used to beg door to door. In exchange for food, they offered prayers for the deceased on November 2nd. This tradition apparently was born in the UK and after a while spread even in Southern Italy. Christians in fact, wandered about the villages while asking for a sweet called soul’s bread: the more gifts, the more prayers for the dead loved ones of the nice donor.
But Halloween is even more than that: pumpkins, occult and costumes, the legend of Jack-o’-Lantern, etc. have their origins from a remote Celtic ritual that has almost nothing in common with the Day of the Dead. October 31st, especially by adults, is lived nowadays as an occasion to celebrate fall and also as an opportunity to disguise themselves and attend parties. It’s a moment that is more similar to Carnival, that in the U.S.A. is not typically celebrated.
In any case, despite the influence of other cultures, the Day of the Dead remains something unique. An authentic Sicilian identity was able to last through the centuries while keeping alive both the coziest and religious side and the zest for life that every Sicilian has inside. It’s a day to remember, surely, but that, quoting Leonardo Sciascia when they asked him what a religious celebration in Sicily is, «it’s everything, except of a religious celebration. First of all, it’s an existential explosion».