An Italian Halloween?
Pumpkin with candle: ? check. Fake spider webs : ? check. Scary customs: ? check. Trick or treat street itinerary planned through the town: ? check.
Yes, all ready to go for Halloween, but one things is wrong: this is not the U.S.A.!!!!
This is Oriago, a small town near Venice, the town where I live and that , since I moved back from England a few years back, has gone wild with Halloween Celebration.
I can hear you saying: WOW, Halloween is celebrated in Italy too?? Well,Yes, the American Halloween as you know it but I speak for my neck of the woods, for other parts of Italy I cannot vouch. This is very recent and it is the materialistic part of it which we celebrate, with Halloween theme goods spread in every single shop, with kids going around dressed in scary home-made customs shouting out of their lungs Trick or Treat with a thick Italian accent (and they do not even know what they are screaming), with Italian old ladies just too scared to open the doors thinking they are in the middle of getting robbed and then realising it is those kids again, like the year before, asking for cakes and sweets out of the blue!
When I used to live in the UK, I loved to take my oldest son trick or treating and the whole thing made sense. The strong connection between the UK and USA somehow justified British kids celebrating Halloween like their American counterparts.
It was a bit of a shock for me coming back to Italy and finding Italian children celebrating Halloween just because! Yes, just because…, in fact if you ask them why they are celebrating they do not have a clue. This tradition has been imposed by TV and the endless line up of American TV Series, the media and the manufacturers of sweet/customs/gadgets.
The funny bit is that in Italy we have been celebrating The Dead and All Saints for centuries, but just in a different way and unfortunately, in a matter of few years, people seem to have forgotten all about it
As a child I remember waiting impatiently for the 1st of November: it meant no school for the day since it was a bank holiday and it meant eating at nanny’s with BBQ, polenta and lots and lots of cakes from the local patisserie
The day started with us attending mass at our local church, then off to the best patisserie (cake shop) in town where dad ( and all the other people coming to lunch) would buy big trays of small Italian cakes. We would arrive at nanny’s just as she was bringing in the cooked meat and the polenta from the BBQ. We would all squeeze in in her tiny living room (sometimes us kids ended up eating on the sofa, and we surely did not mind that!). We would eat for what seemed like hours (well actually it would be for about 3-4 hours) and then in the afternoon there was the unmissable visit to the cemeteries (notice I said cemeteries plural – On the 1st of November all Italian families used to go to the various cemeteries to pay respect to their dead). This visit meant that all my family would be off, going to clean and polish the graves of long-lost granddads, grandmothers, aunties and uncles and after that they will stand there and say a little prayer while laying a chrysanthemum flower. This was always good news for us little children. For some unspoken rule children were not taken to the cemeteries (too sad, I suppose) so one adult would be appointed to look after us and this was the day that all was permitted.
Our uncle (strangely it was always him who got appointed now that I am older and I know better, I am pretty sure he used to volunteer so to avoid the cemetery round ) would take me and my cousins around town in his little white Fiat 500; first we would go around the countryside looking at the birds, the fields and so on, then he would take us to a little hidden bar not far from my nanny’s home to drink a small coke contained in those old glass bottles. That would be the only coke we would drink all through the year, so we waited eagerly for it! It was the highlight of the day. I remember dreaming about that bottle of coke, tasting in my dreams the sweet cold fizzy drink which I would sip with a little plastic straw. I can assure you , I have never tasted in my life a coke as good as that one in that bar!
And then the Grand Finale: on a small solitary road my uncle would let us drive the Fiat 500!!
I am not kidding: in turn we would sit on his lap and whilst he pushed the ac
celerator we would grab hold of the steering wheel and drive wild (probably going about 10 Km an hour) into the sunset! Oh, what a feeling and what memories. I think those were some of the happiest times of my life.
As I grew old and family feuds started, this beautiful family tradition came to a halt. I have not seen my uncle in 20 years, I have not gone to any of the cemeteries to pay my respect to the long-lost dead, the little bar has closed down, coke is sold only in plastic bottles or cans. Everything sadly has gone.
So maybe that is why I do not feel like saying that I am against my children celebrating Halloween the way they do: it is the only way the know!!
PS: In the IV century Europeans started to celebrate their martyrs on a specific date. The 1st of November was chosen by Pope Gregorio III, so it would coincide with the Samhain, an antique new year Celtic celebration, after pressing request by Irish monks. During Charlemagne the celebration of All Saints was widespread.
According to many Italians, during the night of All Dead the souls of the departed come back from beyond the graves in a long line, walking around the streets of the towns. That is way, like in the Anglo-Saxon culture, we carve a pumpkin and place it on the window with a candle inside it to use as a lantern.
The idea that All Saints was inaugurated (in Rome) to replace an Irish festival is a modern myth. There is no record of any urging by Irish monks. The very idea of an Irish festival of “Samhain” is itself dubious as the only records of it appeared in myths centuries after All Saints started. This makes it quite likely that the authors of the myths borrowed the date from All Saints.