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FOOD & DRINK

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.

READ ALSO: Unlucky for some: Thirteen strange Italian superstitions

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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FOOD & DRINK

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Summer in Italy means lots of things - trips to the beach, empty cities, strikes, and metro works - but it also ushers in the spritz and negroni season. Here are some of the best drinks to cool down with in Italy this summer.

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Spritz

Venice wins all the prizes for being the home of the spritz: the jewel in Italy’s summertime daisy crown and one of the country’s most popular exports.

To first-time customers, the sweet-and-bitter combo can taste unpleasantly like a poisoned alcopop. Stick with it, however, and you’ll soon learn to appreciate this sunset-coloured aperitif, which has come to feel synonymous with summer in Italy.

The most common version is the bright orange Aperol Spritz, but if this starts to feel too sweet once your tastebuds adjust then you can graduate to the dark red Campari Spritz, which has a deeper and more complex flavour profile.

What are the best summer drinks to order in Italy?

Photo by Federica Ariemma/Unsplash.

Negroni

If you’re too cool for the unabashedly flamboyant spritz but want something not too far off flavour-wise, consider the Negroni.

It’s equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari – though if you want a more approachable version, you can order a ‘Negroni sbagliato’ – literally a ‘wrong’ Negroni – which replaces the gin with sweet sparkling Prosecco white wine.

Served with a twist of orange peel and in a low glass, the Negroni closely resembles an Old Fashioned, and is equally as stylish. A traditional Negroni may be stirred, not shaken, but it’s still the kind of cocktail that Bond would surely be happy to be seen sipping.

Crodino

Don’t fancy any alcohol but still crave that bitter, amaro-based aftertaste?

A crodino might be just what you’re after. With its bright orange hue, it both looks and tastes very similar to an Aperol Spritz – so much so that you might initially ask yourself whether you’ve in fact been served the real thing.

Similar in flavour are soft drinks produced by the San Pellegrino brand; bars that don’t have any crodino on hand will often offer you ‘un San Pellegrino’ as a substitute. These drinks are usually available in multiple flavours like blood orange, grapefruit, or prickly pears.

A barman prepares a Campari Spritz cocktail in the historic Campari bar at the entrance of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II shopping mall. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Chinotto

Much like the crodino, the chinotto is another distinctive bitter Italian aperitivo drink.

With its medium-dark brown colouring, however, the chinotto bears more of a resemblance to Coca Cola than to the spritz, leading to its occasionally being designated as the ‘Italian Coca Cola’.

In reality far less caramelly and much more tart than coke, the chinotto has its detractors, and the fact that we’re having to describe its flavour here means it clearly hasn’t set the world alight since it was first invented in the 1930s (it was subsequently popularised by San Pellegrino, which became its main Italian producer).

If you’re looking for another grown-up tasting alternative to an alcoholic aperitivo, however, the chinotto might just be the place to look.

Bellini

What’s not to love about the bellini?

Its delicate orange and rose-pink tones are reminiscent of a sunset in the same way as a spritz, but with none of the spritz’s complex and contradictory flavours.

A combination of pureed peach and sugary Prosecco wine, the bellini’s thick, creamy texture can almost make it feel smoothie or even dessert-like. It’s a sweet and simple delight, with just a slight kick in the tail to remind you it’s not a soft drink.

Shakerato

Not a fan of drinks of the fruity/citrusy/marinated herby variety?

If caffeine’s more your thing, Italy has an answer for you in the caffe shakerato: an iced coffee drink made with espresso, ice cubes, and sugar or sugar syrup.

That might not sound inspired at first, but hear us out: the three ingredients are vigorously mixed together in a cocktail shaker before the liquid is poured (ice cube-free) into a martini glass, leaving a dark elixir with a delicate caramel coloured foam on top.

You couldn’t look much more elegant drinking an iced coffee than sipping one of these.

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