There are festivals and traditions dedicated to the cult of the dead all over the world, to commemorate and remember, think of the day of the dead in Mexico for example.
Even in Italy we have different ways to remember and honour the deceased. In Catania ‘The Festival of the Dead’ has its own specific traditions that often differ from other areas of Sicily and customs elsewhere in the world.
Despite having an obvious melancholic element to it, The Festival of the dead in Catania does have some real party features; there are gifts, typical desserts and markets.
It is an ancient festival with clear pagan roots. It was adopted by Christianity around the 10th century but its history began a long time before. The ancient Romans already celebrated Parentalia between 13th and 21st February, whilst the Celts celebrated the Night of Samhain between the 31st October and 1st November, dedicated to the dead and souls.
Even today on 2nd November, The Festival of the Dead is still very much alive. Customs and traditions that you would expect in other areas of Sicily are incorporated into the celebrations, such as giving sweets or toys to children and organising fairs.
The custom of giving to little ones and telling them that it comes from a deceased relative is a very ancient one. It comes from an old tale in which a father leaves home in order to find work elsewhere. When the youngest of his four sons is sick with an incurable illness, the mother notifies his father, who immediately begins the journey back home.
Not being able to afford a carriage, the father decides to travel by foot, even at night, to get as close as possible and to be able to pay the medical costs for his son with the little he had left. After a day of travelling, he found himself in front of the village cemetery, it was the first day of November. Remembering his dead father, he took the opportunity to visit him and ask him to watch over his seriously ill grandson. At the foot of the tombstone, he found a wooden toy soldier and so he put it in his pocket thinking of giving it to his son.
When he arrived home at night, he hugged his sons, his wife and then gave the little wooden soldier to his little boy. It was the night of the 1st of November, the little boy continued to sleep with his little toy and when morning came he was able to get up out of bed, completely healed. In remembrance of this story, the people of Catania give their children little toys every year.
Even the gastronomic element is lauded, from festive desserts there are the typical Bones of the dead, which are sweet and particularly hard biscuits, and then there’s the Rame di Napoli (the copper of Naples) chocolate biscuits with a soft centre.
Pagan and Christian traditions are mixed in Catania and give life to this unique festival, widely celebrated by its people and which is obviously a good way to remember their lost loved ones, keeping them close and passing on memories to new generations.