Festa dei morti (All Souls), November 2nd

No, your knowledge of the Italian language hasn’t just failed you . Festa dei morti really means ‘Celebration of the dead’, and the above picture does depicts delicious Sicilian sweets (pasta di mandorle, almonds pastry, to be precise). The two things are more connected to each other than it would seem at first sight, but let’s take it one step at a time.

The Festa dei morti, or more correctly Commemorazione dei defunti, is first and foremost a Catholic rite where the living prey for the impure souls of dead relatives to be cleansed in order to be able to enter the Heaven’s Kingdom. While technically it isn’t a civil holiday, most Italians – businesses included – treat it as such. People traditionally took this day off to visit the graves of their relatives. The celebration was officially instated in the Tenth century, but as it often happens with Catholicism it is just an evolution of previous pagan rites aimed to appease the dead and keep them from coming back and invade the world of the living. In ancient times this meant making sacrifices and other offerings for those who had passed on; century after century the offerings became tamer and tamer, until they became mostly food. Today for many Italians the festa dei morti has evolved into what is basically a children’s holiday – an occasion to prepare and eat special treats which, depending on the region, are supposedly to feed the dead too, or brought by them for the kids. Each region also has its typical sweets for this day: often more than one, actually, so making a full list would be impossible. Sicily however is where the festa is taken into special consideration.

The key to the Sicilian celebration is the cannistru, a basket filled with sweet treats like those in the picture and of many other types. The most characteristic are probably the sugar pupi (puppets), delicate figures representing classical folktales characters. Conversely, more common all over Italy are the ossa dei morti (bones of the dead), which are simply shortcake cookies shaped like bones, and sometimes with added spices.
Some provinces all around Italy still keep more primal traditions alive in the form of actual offerings to the spirits of the dead. These can be as plain as a glass of water kept on the table overnight for them to quench their thirst, to a full banquet or just a candle lit in a window frame for them to find their way to the afterlife.