Italy’s fascinating All Souls’ Day traditions

In Sicily, children hunt for treats left by loving relatives no longer around. In northern Italy people leave their homes empty in case the dead want to visit. All over the country, Italians set an empty place at the table for people who no longer sit there.

Italy's fascinating All Souls' Day traditions
A man visits Rome's Verano cemetery. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP.

They’re all part of Italy’s centuries-old tradition of taking November 2nd to remember the dead. In Italy as in many other Christian countries, the day after All Saints’ Day is All Souls’ Day – and here it’s celebrated with prayers, flowers and, of course, food. 

For many Italians, the most important act of remembrance is visiting loved ones’ graves. Cemeteries see an influx of visitors on or around November 2nd, when it’s time to tidy up the family plot and decorate tombs with candles and fresh flowers.

Chrysanthemums are traditional funeral flowers in Italy. Photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons.

The traditional choice of bloom is brightly coloured chrysanthemums: the autumnal flowers are at their peak around All Souls’ Day and Italians associate them with mourning.

Far from being a sombre affair, for many people the graveside vigil is an occasion to thank their ancestors, a celebration of their lives and a chance for adults and children alike to chat to them as if they were still here.

In Rome there was even a custom to eat a picnic at the graveside, a way of sharing a meal with dead loved ones. 

Visitors to Rome’s Verano cemetery. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP.

If the living get closer to the dead on All Souls’ Day, it’s also the time for the dead to get closer to the living.

Some believe that the spirits of those departed return to earth on this day. To welcome them, one common Italian tradition was to set an extra place at the table or even put out a tray of food for invisible visitors.

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In parts of Piedmont, families traditionally go to the cemetery in the evening without clearing the dinner table, so that spirits can come and help themselves without being disturbed.

In other regions people leave lanterns lit and fires burning overnight, while in Cremona in Lombardy it was customary to get up early on All Souls’ Day and make the bed to allow wandering souls to find rest. 

Visitors to Rome’s Verano cemetery. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP.

In Sicily, those who return bring something with them. Children who’ve been good and remembered dead relatives in their prayers all year long are rewarded with gifts of toys and sweets, sometimes hidden around the house on the morning of November 2nd.

Elsewhere it’s customary for the living to give gifts. In Sardinia children go from house to house on All Souls’ Day collecting treats of cakes, nuts and dried fruit in exchange for a prayer for the deceased. And in Emilia Romagna the poor are entitled to “carità di murt”: charity in the name of the dead, in the form of donated food or money.

Fave dei morti from Perugia. Photo: Cantalamessa via Wikimedia Commons.

Italy doesn’t celebrate anything without food, and All Souls’ Day is no exception.

Each region has its own variation on dolci dei morti, sweets of the dead, treats meant to sweeten the bitterness of death. Usually simple white biscuits, they’re typically baked in the form of a bone as an edible memento mori.

Another variation is fave dei morti, beans of the dead, small ground almond cakes in the shape of a bean. They’re sometimes given as gifts between lovers on All Souls’ Day – either as a comfort or a pledge to be faithful “’til death do us part”.

A more savoury tradition is a special stuffed bread seasoned with chilli, which some southern Italians would take to be blessed at All Souls’ Day mass before eating it. The spicy filling was supposed to allow whoever ate it to take on burning punishment on behalf of souls suffering in purgatory, thereby offering them some relief. 

This article was originally published in 2017

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What’s a ‘scampagnata’ and how to do it the Italian way

It’s that time of the year again when Italians go on the so-called "scampagnata", otherwise known as "gita fuori porta" meaning a day trip outside of city ‘doors’. 

What’s a 'scampagnata' and how to do it the Italian way

It’s a tradition hailing back to a distant past. Every trip far from the urban center has always been an excursion of pleasure, a break from the daily routine. 

These scampagnate (‘wanderings in the countryside’) take place during the weekend when people indulge in detox time from work and it’s a sort of ritual that involves both families and groups of friends. 

You get to explore nearby pristine rural areas and discover amazing villages and sites, but above all it’s an opportunity – or rather a justification – to enjoy savoury, huge lunches in traditional taverns and trattorias with typical dishes. 

The period for such day trips starts exactly when summer ends, so when it starts to rain and the temperature drops, and runs throughout the entire winter.

When summer’s over Italians tend to be rather sad and gloomy, the beach joy is over and winter is coming. Autumn for them is just a preparation for winter so these trips are a way to shake up the dark days by bringing a dose of optimism and something to look forward to during the working week. 

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Italians are dead serious about scampagnata, it’s a sacrosanct treat. Foreign observers might think these involve picnics in parks; it may be so, but it is not the rule. 

These outdoor adventures as per Italian style are always very comfortable, laid-back and cozy. Scampagnate are never by train or public transport and the maximum amount of time spent driving in a car or on a motorbike is never more than 3-4 hours.

Departure is never too early in the morning and we still want to eat with ‘our feet under the table’ like my grandpa used to say, so forget paninos and camping-style omelettes. Unless a group of friends is into trekking, hiking or cycling it’s usually an easy-going, calm weekend experience that involves little physical activity. Nothing too adventurous, it’s all about having a good time – and eating. 

The preparation for the gite fuori porta can be complex and time-consuming as it’s a way to mentally escape from the office during the working day.

There are rounds of calls and text messages throughout the week to ‘vote’ for the specific place to visit and also for the restaurant. Ladies chat about how they will be dressing in a very cool way, showing off the new wintery clothes. 

Everybody proposes a place but then nobody has the courage to actually decide where to go so most of the week is spent debating the destination until the person most overloaded with work says ‘OK let’s go there. Basta.’

I remember once with my friends it took us two weeks to organize a day trip to the Park of the Monsters of Bomarzo near Viterbo, the problem wasn’t agreeing on the place but finding a suitable restaurant that could satisfy our palates. 

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The fact that an hour or so is spent walking around a ‘new’ hamlet, admiring a waterfall, going underground in an old well or visiting a new museum justifies the amount of calorie intake during lunch. Energy is also consumed buying gourmet products like honey, jams, ricotta and hams, or a pair of handmade gloves or porcini mushrooms and chestnuts at a food fair. Feeling like a one-day ‘blitz tourist’ gives you the illusion that you can still savor a short holiday near your home during a non-festive period. 

Rule number one is to be well equipped in case it rains or gets cold, if you happen to go up on the mountains an umbrella is a must as are scarves and heavier coats. The car must also be stacked with the most awesome music albums to enjoy along the ride.

It’s still a trip ‘on a budget’ as people don’t want to spend too much given scampagnate may be every weekend. If it’s a bunch of friends they split the cost of the fuel, parking, and the bar and restaurant bills alla Romana way (meaning everyone pays his or her share). 

The choice of the restaurant is key because eating out is the main driver behind the scampagnata

The typical lunch menu always has to feature antipasto all’italiana with all sorts of hams and cheeses, beans and bruschetta followed by pasta, meat and tiramisù. And of course tonnes of wine, which raises the question of who will be driving the car back home as that person will have to stay semi-sober.

So people vote on who the unlucky driver will be. After the coffee and the ammazza caffé (coffee-killer liqueur), it’s time to leave after a 2-3 hours long lunch. 

While the driver does his job the other members of the group go in a slumber in their backseats with their bellies full, feeling already a bit of nostalgia and dreading the Monday back-to-work routine. 

Often to prolong the beautiful excursion Italians tend to ‘tirare alla lunga’, to ‘stretch’ the pleasant trip and go home as late as possible.

Scampagnate can also turn out to be tough when it’s cold but just for the sake of sitting on a bench in the middle of a gorgeous piazza, munching on pancetta delicacies until the sun goes down, you endure even if your feet are freezing. 

The first one who says ‘OK let’s go home’ is a party pooper, the others frown because the scampagnata mood has just been killed. 

I find the gite fuori porta so typical of Italians who believe that even short journeys are a culinary mission.