Italy is known for many things including its lush vineyards, stunning coastlines, and rich heritage. If you’re planning to visit this beautiful European country, you’ll do well to learn a bit about the culture, customs, and religion of the people who live there.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is La Festa dei Morti?
- What Other Celebrations Are Similar to La Festa dei Morti?
- How Is La Festa dei Morti Celebrated?
Understanding some of Italy’s cultural heritage before you plan on traveling will help you enjoy your visit even more. And if you hale from Italian heritage but only your grandma has shared stories about life in Italy, read on. Learn about a fascinating event that occurs yearly, and, whether you’re home or visiting Italy, you’ll be able to take part.
What Is La Festa dei Morti?
La Festa dei Morti is Italy’s version of the Day of the Dead. This is a time when families gather together to celebrate their deceased loved ones. It is said that the deceased come bringing gifts for the children and will remain with the family to enjoy a day of feasting and merriment.
On this day, the dead are remembered and celebrated. Children learn to appreciate their elders and those who have passed away and learn what it means to memorialize someone.
Where it’s celebrated
Though you’ll find those who celebrate La Festa dei Morti throughout Italy, the heaviest concentration of celebrants are in southern Italy and Sicily, where the tradition first got started.
The origin of this celebratory holiday can be dated back to the Early Middle Ages, specifically the ninth and 10th centuries. One specific incident that many trace the origin of the Sicilian festival to occurred in the late 900s when a French Benedictine Abbot, Odilone of Cluny, decided to commemorate the dead. He set aside a day during which the church bells tolled, a time of prayer was had, and a community-wide feast held in honor of the deceased.
In many ways, La Festa dei Morti is a more important holiday to those who celebrate it than Christmas. Though you might find that surprising, La Festa dei Morti has been celebrated in Italy long before Christmas became the gift-giving holiday we all know it to be today.
The purpose of the holiday is similar to the Day of the Dead in Hispanic culture. It’s a day to honor the deceased. It’s a time for families to gather together and celebrate those who have gone on before them. By remembering the dead, families create an awareness of the cycle of life and death and celebrate the natural rhythm in which we all exist.
When Is La Festa dei Morti?
Preparations for La Festa dei Morti begin the week before as bakeries begin to craft the special sweets and baked goods traditionally eaten for the holiday. Parents also prepare for the holiday by purchasing their children special gifts.
The specific day of La Festa dei Morti, however, occurs on November 2nd, traditionally colliding with All Souls’ Day. The celebration is often combined with the Catholic holidays that celebrate the Catholic afterlife including All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.
What Other Celebrations Are Similar to La Festa dei Morti?
Several celebrations around the world are similar to La Festa dei Morti. Depending on where you travel, you just might find yourself celebrating this holiday with the locals during the right time of year. Here are several celebrations that occur around the world.
Dia de los Muertos in Mexico
This Day of the Dead celebration occurs in Mexico, parts of South America, and North America. It’s a colorful celebration with festivals, community events, special baked goods and decorations, and visits to the cemeteries where families clean up and decorate the graves of their loved ones.
Dia de los Muertos occurs yearly on November 1st and 2nd.
Obon Festival in Japan
Obon is a Japanese festival of the dead. During this time, families visit the graves of their relatives and clean them. There are also community celebrations, family feasts, and a day where floating lanterns are lit to guide the spirits back home.
Obon is typically celebrated in July or mid-August, depending on the lunar calendar.
Fet Gede in Haiti
This is the Haitian Day of the Dead when Voodoo practitioners are said to walk the streets possessed by the spirits of the deceased. The day is celebrated with festivities and community events. Families will place gifts, candles, and flowers in front of their homes to welcome the spirits.
Fet Gede coincides with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day on November 1st and 2nd.
Hungry Ghost Festival
In China, the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrates the spirits that are allowed to return to earth from hell and seek entertainment and pleasure. Fake money is burned so the spirits have money to spend, food is left out for them to eat, and community events are held to entertain the dead and the living.
The Hungry Ghost Festival occurs during September or August depending on the lunar calendar.
How Is La Festa dei Morti Celebrated?
La Festa dei Morti is a celebration for both children and adults, though it’s more heavily centered on the enjoyment of children. Similar to how children look forward to Christmas, Sicilian children look forward to Festa dei Morti. It’s a happy family event that goes back centuries.
Families celebrate together by enjoying sweets, traditional foods, and participating in community activities such as these below.
Hunting for presents
Children are told throughout the year that, if they’re good, their deceased grandparents will leave them presents during the holiday. Then when they go to bed on November 1st, parents will set to work hiding sweets and toys around the house for their children to find when they wake.
Traditionally, these presents used to be baskets of fruit and candy that were carefully set out the night before. Today, however, gift-giving has become similar to Christmas and children might find anything from chocolates to a wished-for bicycle.
Cannistru ri Morti
A Cannistru ri Morti is a traditional basket of sweets and baked goods prepared by families for their children. Traditionally, this basket was the gift provided by the deceased grandparents, and it was filled with cookies and sweets from local bakeries and confectioneries crafted specifically for La Festa dei Morti. Today, the baskets of sweets are more commonly enjoyed by the whole family rather than given to children.
Visiting the cemetery
After gifts have been discovered and breakfast has been eaten, families will go to the cemetery to visit their relatives’ graves. They’ll take a bouquet of flowers and will spend time at the gravesite to clean it up and remove weeds. Children will play among the graves with their new toys as a way to say thank you for the gifts. Before leaving, families will light candles and neatly arrange the fresh flowers on their loved ones’ graves.
Feasting on traditional foods and sweets
Food is a huge part of Festa dei Morti, and it factors in significantly during the day of celebrations. Since it is said that the spirits of the deceased will eat with their families, food is plentiful, and many items consumed are representative of the deceased. Here are just a few food items traditionally enjoyed during La Festa dei Morti.
Ossa dei Morti
Literally translated “bones of the dead,” these are hard, white cookies that get baked in the shape of bones. They’re made from a dough of flour, sugar, lemon, and almonds.
Fave dei Morti
This cookie’s translation means “beans of the dead.” In the days of ancient Rome, it was thought that spirits of the dead lived in black bean plants. Beans were even thrown over the shoulder when mourners wanted to honor the dead.
This is a marzipan confectionery made from almond paste fashioned to look like pieces of fruit including cherries, apples, pears, and oranges.
Pupi ri Zuccaru
Pupi ri Zuccaru, or sugar puppets, are small figures made of solid sugar. These sugar figurines traditionally were fashioned to look like knights on horseback. Today, you can find both traditional sugar puppets and figurines made to look like cartoon characters and popular figures from children’s stories.
This is a traditional breakfast food made with a round loaf of bread sliced in half. Olive oil, oregano, anchovies, and a few slices of cheese complete this hot meal.
Fiere dei Morto
The Fiere dei Morto, or Fair of the Dead, coincides with the time of year when La Festa dei Morti is celebrated and goes for a week. This fair is an annual celebration complete with traditional carnival games, rides, food, and a huge market where people can purchase traditional Festa dei Morti baked goods along with a wide range of goods such as clothes, toys, and handmade items.
Notte di Zucchero
Recently, Halloween has started to become a substitute for the fun and excitement of Festa dei Morti. Seeing this shift away from traditional culture, Italian actress Guisi Cataldo created Notte di Zucchero, a community event that encourages Sicilians to celebrate the traditional festival that belongs to their heritage.
Notte de Zucchero, or Night of Sugar, occurs in Palermo’s historic city center. During the night of November 2nd, Palermo’s streets come alive with theatrical street performances, storytellers, art exhibits, and workshops celebrating La Festa dei Morti.
Honoring the Dead in Sicily
Whether you’re in Sicily during this unique festival or you’re far away, you can still share in the celebration of honoring and remembering those who have gone on before you. Death is a part of life, and by celebrating ancestors and relatives, you can uphold their memory and continue their legacy no matter how many years they’ve been gone.