My son has recently begun the school year in Sicily, which is proving to be quite an experience for both of us. I like how school life in a small town is wonderfully protective and comforting for young boys and girls who are literally smothered by the community.
While at the same time I am frustrated by the posturing of the local mothers who seem more concerned about putting their children on display rather than bettering their education and the closed-minded teachers who are stuck in the habits of their traditions which sees my son being tortured by attempting long-winded old-fashioned handwriting exercises from the first week of first grade.
Now he’s in second grade and does cursive better than me! I will bumble my way through the rest of the school year avoiding conflicts, ignoring frustrations and deep breathing through all the difficulties.
My son’s homework for the first of November is to copy these lines:
Novembre é il mese delle morte
Abbiamo pregato per loro
I morti dormano nei cemeteri.
(November is the month of the dead.
We have prayed for them
The dead sleep in the cemeteries)
I found this to be an interesting type of homework to give a six-year-old, it reflects the importance of the major religious holiday of All Souls day on the second of November, which sees people paying tributes to their ancestors on and seems to run over through into the whole month.
While part of the world is trick or treating, others are visiting their ancestors in the cemeteries, lovingly cleaning and maintaining the tombs and decorating them with lights and bouquets of flowers for the feast day of the defunti.
I’ve never celebrated Halloween, it’s always been foreign to me even though the entire world seems to love to celebrate this holiday with all of its colour and masquerade. Instead of doing Halloween, I’ve been celebrating I morti and tutti Santi (all souls and all saints) which are distinctly religious celebrations yet are more sombre and have become a part of my annual routine.
When I first came to Sicily I thought All souls was macabre, yet there is a subtle underlying affection to it all, everyone visits the tombs of their families deceased bringing flowers and lighting up the cemetery with hundreds of little light globes. It is about honouring your ancestors, remembering where you came from, the stepping stones which led to you and it feels like an honourable ritual to follow.
The connection to families dearly departed used to be more intense, bordering on fanatical. in the past, the living used to prepare special treats and leave them at the resting places of their family. At the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo up until the early twentieth century people used to visit their mummified relatives, to talk to them and bring them elaborate treats.
These days the only thing that remains of this macabre tradition in Sicily is the preparation of biscuits called Ossa di morto (bones of the dead) and delicate little artful marzipan fruits called Frutta Martorana which are often given as gifts to children, who are left little sweets as presents, which the souls of their departed grandparents leave for them on the night between the first All Saints (Ogni Sante) and All Souls (defunti) on the second of November.
Ossa di morto are delicate sugary biscuits flavoured with cinnamon and cloves which are left to rest and leavened for two to three days when they are finally baked delicate little biscuit mushrooms out from under the whitened bone coloured biscuit. The traditional version is very simple and sweet, often the pastry is flavoured with different aromas like orange, lemon and chocolate.
While the traditional Frutta Martorana are sculptured out of marzipan and are often enriched further by being filled with chocolate or hazelnut Nutella. These marzipan delights are said to have originated at the Monastery of Martorana, Palermo when the nuns decorated bare fruit trees with the fruit sculptures to impress a visiting archbishop. Today these tiny works of art are found throughout the provinces of Messina and Palermo.
Throughout the year these unique baroque sweets, made from almonds and sugar are moulded into anything imaginable and are sold to tourists visiting the island, but they are really associated with November and the many generations who populate the cities of the dead.