CHIAVARI, Italy – Lots of Halloween treats in the windows of pastry shops in Chiavari this week. There are pumpkin shaped candies and my favorite cookies, pan dei morti, the bread of the dead. Halloween is becoming more popular here, not the trick or treating part, the Italians haven’t quite grasped that concept yet, but the 20 somethings do like dressing up and looking weird and doing Zombie Walks. But for those closer to and beyond 40, this weekend is a serious holiday. Today, November 1, is Ognisanti, All Saints Day, and tomorrow, November 2, is La Commemorazione dei Defunti, All Souls Day.
This is the weekend families travel kilometers and kilometers to lay flowers and votive candles on the graves of their parents and grandparents and other relatives. I doubt people still believe that their relative’s souls return to Earth every year, but just in case it’s true special masses are said for the dead. It is also a time for families to be together and pay tribute to those who have passed.
Celebrating the dead is a very old tradition that dates back to the time of the Roman pagans. The Roman celebrtion was called the Parentalia, and it was a serious nine day celebration during which neither marriages or any type of legal business was allowed to be conducted. The Romans would leave garlands of flowers and wine-soaked bread on the tombs of their dead relatives in the hope that the evil spirits would be appeased by the gifts and not dance around in the cemeteries disturbing the dead who were trying to rest in peace.
|Old Roman Cemetary, Pompeii|
After Christianity took hold the Parentalia morphed into Saints Day, but then the Catholic Church found that there weren’t enough days in the year to celebrate all of the martyred saints so, in the early part of the 9th century, Pope Boniface IV created a collective holiday to celebrate all of them with one holiday, and so we have All Saints Day.
All Saints Day was celebrated on the first day of winter, as it was believed that was the time the division between earthly life and afterlife was razor thin, making it easy for the dead to reenter their bodies and return to the earth for a visit. It just may be that the Zombie walks represent that part of the celebration.
Like the Roman Parentalia, All Souls Day celebrations also revolved around food but in a different way. Instead of leaving food on their relative’s graves, people in the province of Massa Carrara (Tuscany) distributed it to the needy. In Monte Argenario, also in Tuscany, there was a tradition of sewing large pockets on the front of the clothes of orphaned children so everyone could give them a little something, food or money, and in Abruzzo they would carve out pumpkins, put a candle inside of them and use them as lanterns. Any of this sound familiar?
Like every important holiday, Ognisanto has its special treats – the most important being the oddly shaped pan dei morti. And even though pan dei morti translates to bread of the dead, it’s really a cookie made with figs and nuts and other good things.
The cookies sort of look like hands in prayer, but originally they were supposed to resemble a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Plates of cookie babies were left on graves as a sacrifice to the evil spirits who lived in the cemeteries, as everyone knew those evil spirits were beastly ghouls who liked nothing better than feasting on tender, chewy little babies.
The cookies are symbolic in other ways as well. To begin with they are made from other cookies, amaretti or savoiardi, which are the cookies used for tiramisu. Using them for pan dei morti symbolizes the transformation of old into new, in other words as one person dies another is born and life continues.
The pan dei morti cookie recipe also calls for dried fruit and figs, the same ingredients used in pre-Christian offerings to the dead. In the past they would darken honey by heating it on a stove to make the cookies as dark as the earth in a burial ground, but today a little ground cocoa is used instead. The cookies are dense and chewy with a bit of crunch from the ground amaretti and pine nuts, which give the idea of crunching dead people’s bones. Yum, yum, crunchy bones. How does that song go – everything old is new again? It would seem that is true, at least here, right down to the bone-crunching end.