Hallowed Saints and Souls in Sicily

Hallowed Saints and Souls in Sicily

The beginning of November has traditionally been a time for the dead in Italy. A mix of somber religious reflection, modern costume parties and bittersweet remembrances of deceased family members, the Italian celebrations have roots which stretch back centuries, but which have also been affected by outside influence, particularly American.


Ognissanti, or All Saints’ Day, falls on November 1st, and is a national holiday in Italy. The festival has a history stretching back to the 7th century, and is a time to honor all the world’s saints, those known and unknown. This is a strictly religious day, where the main celebrations are found in churches. That’s probably fine for most younger people, who are likely working off hangovers. All Saints’ Day is also known as All Hallows’ Day, which makes the 31st of October All Hallows’ Eve … or Halloween.

Though it’s not an Italian tradition in any sense, Halloween has become a popular holiday here. Walking home on the night of the 31st, I spotted a few zombies, witches, pirates and monkeys roaming the streets of Palermo, on their way to parties. As far as I saw, there was no trick-or-treating, but sweets would play a central role later in the week.

On the night of the 1st, Sicilian parents and grandparents make, or (more likely in this day and age) buy martorana for the kiddies. Martorana is colorful, sweet marzipan, formed into the shapes of fruits and animals, which children receive on November 2nd, or All Souls’ Day. Lucky kids might also get toys. The idea is that the ghosts of deceased family members steal into the home and hide the gifts for their descendants. Around this time of year, you can find martorana in almost every bakery in Sicily.

Fully in the spirit of the holiday, I went out and bought some martorana. Although it was more a greedy sweet tooth than supernatural suggestion that encouraged the purchase, I found myself thinking about my dead grandparents while munching them. It was an opportunity to reflect on their memory, which is something I don’t do nearly enough of. We don’t really have a “Day of the Dead” in the States or in Germany. With so many worthless holidays like Columbus Day and Sweetest Day, that seems like a pretty tragic oversight.