Wednesday, November 2, 2011

La Festa dei Morti: Special Sweets to Honor the Souls of the Departed

"Frutta di Martorana"
 against a ceramic scultpure
by the late Sicilian artist
Giovanni De Simone--a gift from my mother
"La Festa dei Morti" or the Feast of the Souls is an ancient tradition occurring every November 2 honoring the souls of our departed loved ones. It is preceded on November 1 with "Ognissanti" or All Saints Day which honors the saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church.  Ognissanti is a legal holiday in  Italy, although in Sicily many stores and businesses close for La Festa Dei Morti as well. While this holiday may sound somber, it is actually one of the most festive, involving gifts for children and special traditions.  As always, food is an important part of the celebration. 

Suora Isabella at the Marsala Cemetary
La Festa dei Morti likely has pagan origins celebrating the end of the summer and the beginning of fall and winter. Versions of this feast are seen in cultures and civilizations around the world. For the ancient Druids for example, on their holiday of Samhain, meaning "summer's end," a precursor to All Saints Day, the sacred flame was extinguished and a new flame lit to mark the start of a new year.  Similar to the beliefs of Sicilians, the Druids believed that the souls of the departed would return at this time to visit the living. In some Sicilian traditions, families set an extra place at the table for their departed loved ones to welcome them home.

A typical "cestino"
or basket of sweets for "Il Giorno dei Morti".
The invisible world of departed souls is ever present in the Sicilian psyche.  Most Sicilians visit their loved ones who have passd on at the cemetery very often, and many visit weekly. During this November 2 feast in particular, entire families visit the cemeteries offering flowers and prayers. In most Sicilian cemeteries, there are nuns who say special prayers for the dead on behalf of a loved one.  The coins they receive for this service are collected and used to maintain their orphanages or convents. 

In a recent trip to Sicily, my sons and I visited my father who is buried at cemetery of Marsala, accompanied by my aunt Pina, my father's sister.  At the cemetery my aunt stopped to greet one such nun and to introduced me to her. Amazingly, this nun who ran an orphange, knew my mother.  In her youth while apprenticing as a seamstress, my mother had made first communion dresses for all the little girls in her orphanage.  Some 50 years later, this dear and pious woman still remembered my mother and her beautiful gift of love to those unknown children. 
Typical "pupi di zucchero," 
hand painted hollow sugar dolls.

In the Sicilian tradition of La Festa Dei Morti, children are told that the souls of their beloved relatives return bringing gifts and sweets. In my mother and father's time, La Festa Dei Morti was among the most important feasts for giving gifts, eclipsing even the modern custom of gift exchanges at Christmas.  In my mother's home, she and her siblings would put their shoes outside the front door in preparation for the arrival of the departed relatives. Because they had been good, they expected gifts in their shoes the next morning. My maternal grandfather Nonno Leonardo (my maternal grandmother and grandfather were named Leonardo and Leonarda), would also put his shoes out at the insistence of my grandmother.  The next morning the children would wake to find candies and sweets in their shoes, while my grandfather would find lumps of coal and rusty nails, the gift received by bad little boys and girls, which sent the children into paroxysms of laughter!

My mother Maddalena
at 5 years old.
As part of this celebration, my grandmother Leonarda would arrange a "cestino" or basket of sweets for the children, filled with fragrant delights, among them "frutta di martorana," hand painted sweets shaped like fruit.  Martorana is made from an almond-based dough called "pasta reale"  or "royal dough." Also in the basket were sugar dolls, hollow figurines called "pupi di zucchero" made of sugar and painted to resemble ceramic sculptures.  Very white, almond based cookies called "ossa dei morti," or "bones of the dead," were included, along with dried figs, almonds, walnuts and tangerines.

The sugar figurines were very special works of art, each individually hand painted.  My grandmother preferred that the children did not eat them right away, so they would be placed high on a dining room credenza for all to admire.  My mother later told me that she and her brothers would find their way to the treats and nibble the hidden back part of their sugar dolls so as not to attract attention --until their mother discovered them or the dolls collapsed!   

Until next time, "auguri"!  Best wishes to you for the Festa dei Morti!

                                       Ciao a presto!

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