Traditional Foodways: Dolci dei morti

Food is a central part of celebrating festa dei morti or All Souls’ Day in Southern Italy and Sicily. Granted, it’s a central part of most feste italiane, but something about the way sharing a meal brings a family together illuminates the true meaning of this holiday, which focuses on familial ties that bind us even in death.

Many of the traditional foods associated with this day are desserts, called dolci dei morti (“sweets of the dead”). These dolci predate the importation of American Halloween traditions, including trick-or-treating, but the commonality of sugary fun is definitely intriguing!

I can only speculate on why sweetness is so important to Italian and Sicilian celebrations of the dead: it could be because children play a prominent role in this feast, being seen as gifts from (or perhaps emanations of) the ancestors. Or maybe it’s so that the dead will be sweet to us, doing graces on our behalf! In any case, savor the sweetness of the day. Flavor, like scent and music, reveals something about the nature of spirits.

fave_dei_morti
Ossi dei morti (“bones of the dead”), AKA fave dei morti (“beans of the dead”). The connection between beans and the dead goes back to Antiquity, and may be older than that.

Ossi dei morti (Sicily)
Shown above, these cookies are made with the first almonds harvested in September. Their shape and color is meant to mimic a pile of bones.
Get the recipe here.

Pane dei morti (Lombardia)
More of a cookie than a bread in my opinion, but I’m not a chef. These also contain almonds, with amaretto cookies, chocolate, and figs for additional flavor.
Get the recipe here.

Pupi di zucchero (Sicily)
These figures are shaped out of marzipan to resemble humans in a tradition remarkably similar to the calaveras or sugar skulls used to celebrate Día de los Muertos in Mexico. The pupi di zucchero are both decorative and delicious, commonly given as gifts to children, and seem to represent the dead themselves. But unlike in Mexican folk art, the dead in Southern Italy and Sicily are depicted as they were in life, not as skeletons.

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A Rosary for the Dead on All Souls’ Day (Nov 2)

This rosary is typically prayed every day during the octave of the festa dei morti (feast of the dead), known more officially in Italian as the Commemorazione di Tutti i Fideli Defunti (Commemoration of All Deceased Faithful), and among English-speaking countries as All Souls’ Day. In many Catholic countries, All Souls’ Day (November 2) is a time for remembering the dead. It can be celebrated by praying, visiting and cleaning up loved ones’ graves, making offerings of food or flowers, or paying for masses to be said in honor of the departed.

mangiare-sulle-tombe-san-demetrio-corone-in-calabria
A man eats at a tomb in San Demeterio Corone, Calabria on All Souls’ Day. Via Benedicaria.

The octave lasts from November 2 to November 10. If you wish to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory as is done in Sicilian folk tradition, you can use the words below. Sicilian rosaries can be prayed on standard rosary beads, reciting one posta for each of the large beads, and one grani for each of the small beads. (More official prayers for the dead can be found in the Raccolta, the pre-Vatican II guide to indulgences. A free PDF is available online here.)  I have included an English translation, but the Sicilian is pronounced very similar to Italian if you feel comfortable with that language.

This rosary from Sicilian oral tradition was originally transcribed and published by Sara Favarò in A Cruna: Antologia di Rosari Siciliani. I have chosen to translate “arrifriscati” (lit. “refresh yourselves”) as “be cooled”. “Refreshment” in Southern Italian and Sicilian magico-religious thought is relief from the heat and suffering of Purgatory. Souls grateful for refreshment are disposed to work miracles on behalf of those who pray for them. The concept is similar to the idea of cooling heated spirits in spiritism and African Diasporic Traditions.

Siciliano

(Posta)

Per li setti battitura
chi patì nostru Signuri
pi li chiova arribuccati
Armuzzi Santi, arrifriscati.
Armi Santi, Armi Santi
iò sugnu sula vui siti tanti
pi la nostra orazioni
livatimilla ‘sta cunfusioni.
Quannu vui ‘n celu acchianati
pi nui piccatura priati
arma ‘n celu e corpu ‘n terra
recam eterna.

(Grani)

Armi Santi e santi veri
Armuzzi Santi miserere
e Maria pi so buntati
Armuzzi Santi arrifriscati.

English

(Posta)

By the seven beatings
that our Lord suffered,
by the twisted nails,
Holy Souls: be cooled.
Holy Souls, Holy Souls,
I am one, you are many.
By our prayer,
take away from me this confusion.
When you ascend to heaven,
pray for us sinners.
Soul in heaven and body in earth,
eternal peace.

(Grani)  

Holy Souls and true saints,
merciful Holy Souls,
and Maria by her goodness,
Holy Souls: be cooled.