Bones and fruit of the dead

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The connection to a 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.

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Ossa di morto

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 flavored with cinnamon and cloves which are left to rest and leavened for two to three days, when they are finally baked a delicate little biscuit mushrooms out from under the whitened bone colored biscuit. The traditional version is very simply and sweet, often the pastry is flavored with different aromas like orange, lemon and chocolate.

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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.

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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.

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15 thoughts on “Bones and fruit of the dead

    1. 😀😅 I wouldn’t do that to the poor boy, his back pack is much smaller than his classmates, there is even one boy who has a one of those rolley trolley things. I think its a staus thing the bigger the bag or the more Disney merch the better. I’m more concerned about my son’s spine. So many sarcastic blog posts on Italian school life there😉

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  1. Hi Rochelle. This is so interesting. In my paese, Orsara di Puglia, there is a huge festa tonight Nov 1st Fucacoste e Cocce Priatorje. That’s dialect to for Falò e teste del purgatorio. Bonfires and pumpkins all over town. The traditional food today is called muscitaglia. I wrote about it today, and there is a link to a post about the festa. I have not ever been, since November is not a time I have ever visited Italy, but I hope to go one day. Ciao, Cristina

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  2. Thank you for posting what this fall holiday is/used to be all about before we “Americanized” it. Days recognizing ancestors are still celebrated all over the world because they are so much more meaningful than “trick or treat.”. I hope these traditions remain with us!

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    1. Yes, this is exactly why I wrote this piece. Halloween has never made sense to me, its fun to dress up but the traditions have more meaning☺👍. Thanks for your comment.

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  3. Interesting post highlighting a system of education that was already on its way out of the U.S. in the 60s. Some of the repetitive tasks are helpful, others … well…
    The little poem is quite telling, and perhaps a good thing. Death is a part of life. I wonder what a psychologist would say on the subject.

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    1. Thanks, it is a little frustrating when I try to make suggestions and get dirty looks. The handwriting was a battle, my son can write elaborate cursive but has terrible printing😳.
      All this death stuff for all souls at school is so the kids don’t become afraid of death and to remember deceased family members. It would be interesting to hear the psychological aspect …

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      1. Yeah. I suppose you have to try to concentrate on the positives and let the rest just roll off you… easier said than done. I took a 6-month teacher training course at the Universita’ per stranieri in Reggio Calabria and even though I was of a very mature age, I had difficulties with the accepted system. Hopefully, a 6-year-old will have fewer issues melding.

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      2. I hope so too😰. I’m glad he’s got a patient teacher and his classmates are a lovely bunch of kids. And I always try to make homework fun with a few other activities at home.
        Oh I did ‘t know the Università per stranieri does classes at Calabria, that’s good to know👍. I do a lot of meditation and deep breathing, it helps😉😅

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