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 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 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.

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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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Without winter there wouldn’t be a summer

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November in Sicily

People often avoid the island of the sun in the winter months, preferring to bathe themselves in the sunshine and sea during the warmer months. But delving into Sicily in autumn/winter is a more authentic and rich experience.

The first of November begins with All souls day, a celebration dotted with colourful traditions in which the locals dedicate themselves to honour their ancestors, mostly a religious holiday the cemeteries are beautifully decorated and chrysanthemums are sold by the truckloads on the side of the road. It may seem a morbid time to visit, but actually, if you are intending to do any genealogical research into any Sicilian roots, the cemeteries are filled with people and you may bump into long-lost family members visiting dearly departed relatives.

November in Sicily is punctuated by warm sunny days and rainy dull ones, which never last too long. So when it does rain it’s the perfect time to dedicate yourself to the hundreds of museums, galleries and churches throughout the island. Also, the religion of food becomes the central focus of most Siculu natives at this time of year, as always.

All the tourists have gone home and so at times it will feel like you have the island to yourself. It is a perfect time to dedicate to seeing the major historical attractions which are much less crowded, less expensive and infinitely more pleasant in the cooler weather (even if opening hours may change, some sites open only in the morning simply because the days are shorter). The archaeological sites are hellish in the summer months, the islands are sweaty and humid. But you can still do the usual day trips and everything has a different character when there is no crowd of tourists. Taormina in the winter is even more charming and filled with locals, there is a winter Opera performance program as rich as the summer one. While provinces like Agrigento, Syracuse and Enna are desert-like in the summer, in November they are teaming with local colour, religious celebrations, traditions and delicacies to discover. Visiting the Val dei Tempi, Val di Noto Baroque towns and the Villa Romana del Casale without busloads of tourists in town is absolute heaven. And on the first Sunday of each month entrance is free.

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St Martin’s wine and sagre

On the 11th of November, as the saying goes, ‘Per San Martino ogni musto diventa vino’, for Saint Martin’s day all juice becomes wine.

Throughout Sicily and the Italian peninsula, the patron saint of wine, San Martino’s feast day is spent tasting the vino novello and eating roasted chestnuts.

According to the legend, San Martino helped a poor drunkard and consequently his feast day is celebrated freely by all lovers of wine. Bizarrely he is also the patron saint of cornuti or cuckolded husbands and wives.

Saint Martin was an early Christian martyr, a Roman soldier converted to Christianity by a unique encounter with God. The most famous story from his life occurred during a harsh winter when arriving in a small town after finishing his military duties he met a destitute man dying of cold. Others had simply passed him by, but Saint Martin wanted to help the needy man. Martin was poor himself. The only possession he had was a cape which he used to shield himself from the cold. The saint gave the cape to the impoverished man and continued his journey, partially unclothed.

Later during the night, Saint Martin dreamt of the man whom he had helped and recognised the man as God in disguise, who was testing him. From that moment Saint Martin promised God that he would lay down his sword to follow a religious life. Soon after, he left the army to be baptised a Christian and spent the rest of his life helping poverty-stricken people.

Saint Martin’s service the poor man also led to his first official miracle, known as the week of Saint Martin. It is a week of fine, warm weather beginning on his feast day on the 11th of November. The respite in the weather is said to have occurred in order to keep St Martin from freezing to death during his journey after he was left without his cape. Today the break from winter leads to celebrations and the consumption of new wine that this is so closely associated with this saint.

The miracle of Saint Martin’s summer is a welcome reprieve during the harsh Sicilian winter. It is anticipated every year as a celebration of hope with a little decadence. With abundant food festivals dedicated to wine tasting and other local delicacies at this time of year. There are sagras advertised in the local press which are dedicated to products such as porcini mushrooms, porchetta (spit roasted pork), salami, pork, chestnuts, wine, grappa and at Modica in the province of Syracuse celebrates their ancient Aztec Chocolate in early December. In the lead up to Christmas, there are several re-enactment celebrations of the birth of Jesus from the bible in the form of Nativity performances and exhibitions dedicated to the ancient art of model making (Acireale/Caltagirone) and most major cities have the usual Mercatini di Natale Christmas markets.

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Shopping and Saints

The harsh winters so common in the Sicily of last century have seemed to disappear, over the past decade, the snow comes intermittently and unexpectedly to the main cities. While the snow season on Mount Etna is usually abundant and perfect for the lovers of winter sports.

With the Christmas season is around the corner, the shopping is in full swing Sicily boasts many of the largest shopping complexes in the Mediterranean. Including Sicily Fashion Village near Enna offers a special shuttle service from Palermo to offer shoppers the opportunity to shop from its discount outlet village which houses more than 100 prestigious brands and boutiques. Auchan Porte di Catania in the city centre is a dedicated space for the whole family, where relaxation, shopping and entertainment come together to give you a unique experience with 150 shops with the most glamorous brands of clothing and accessories. Further out-of-town from Catania there is Etnapolis with 120 shops, the largest shopping centre in the whole of Southern Italy and also includes a 12 screen Warner Village cinema, perfect to catch up on the latest Christmas movies (the widely popular Cinepannettone comedy genre.) I Portali is a very prestigious and spacious shopping centre in Catania which houses over 100 stores from the major Italian designer houses. The Forum Palermo is a shopping centre dedicated to luxury items featuring premium Italian and international brands, designer shops and boutiques.

Apart from the pagan and frivolous pursuits, there are the saints who guide Sicilians through the winter with their celebrations filled with suggestive processions and preparations of local fare and colour. Two of the biggest Saint festivals in Sicily are Santa Lucia (Syracuse) and St Agata (Catania). Saint Lucy a virgin martyr was born in Syracuse and her relics and statue are a valuable part of the cities traditions and her feast an amazing celebration to attend.

From the 13th of December to the 20th the city of Siracuse is filled with colour, fireworks, marching bands, sweets and dishes who celebrate the life and miracles of this great Sicilian saint. Saint Agata has saved Catania several times from being destroyed by the Mount Etna volcano and she is adored by the Catanese who celebrate her blessings with elaborate baroque celebrations from the 3rd to the 5th of February every year. Like St Lucy Agata was born in Sicily and is an important figure in the island’s history and mythology.

Of course, Christmas celebrations or Natale is also a wonderful excuse to visit Sicily. Apart from the use of the Nativity as a form of decoration, Christmas markets and traditional folk music concerts, there is an immense dedication to a grand feast of delicacies to enjoy. Not only do Italian’s celebrate Christmas with an extensive banquet but there is also the New Years Eve Cenone which stuffs you with so much food you don’t want to eat for another year.

After recovering from the festive season comes Carnevale in Italy which is an exorbitant time of the year, beginning in early February and it is a seriously big masquerade party filled with wine, fun, and jokes. Traditionally it was a kind of exorcism of decadence before the period of Lent which was forty days of fasting before Easter. The result is many elaborate celebrations, parades, floats and costumes throughout Italy. The most famous Carnival celebrations in Italy are of course Venice and Viareggio but Acireale in the province is famous for its papier-mâché artists designs and Sciaccia in the province of Agrigento is considered the most ancient Carnevale celebration in Italy.

So even if winter can be a bit of a bleak time of the year in the mountain villages of Sicily. The intermittent rain and hail are interrupted by tiny specks of sunshine quickly smudged out by the billowing charcoal clouds. There are still many moments of warm decadence to make a winter visit worthwhile.

During the blackbird days, the coldest days of the year, it is easy to crave the summer but there are many things to help you savour the winter.

After the giornate dello merlo, the last days of January comes the Candelora which is a kind of Sicilian groundhog day. We shall watch on the second of February, if it rains the whole day through then the spring is just around the corner and if the sun shines the snow will come and bring us another forty days of winter and lead to still more sipping of warmed wine or grappa liquor, an apt way of experiencing a Sicilian winter.

 

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Flowers and lights for our ancestors

I morti in Sicilia

November is a sombre time in Sicily, traditionally it’s not all jack o lanterns and candy rather its about taking flowers to the cemetery and lighting artificial lights instead of candles in memory of the dead.

All souls and dearly held saints are prayed for in religious services in the Roman Catholic church and the autumn signals the beginning of winter.

Sicilian’s make the rounds of the graveyards with chrysanthemums cradled in their arms, paying floral homage to their ancestors and placing light globes around the edges of tombs.

Trinacria’s necropolises are decorated by the living as the photo’s of the dead demand it, the images on each tomb and mausoleum plea to be acknowledged. Each photo has surreptitiously robbed a piece of their soul imprisoning their glances in an eerie reflection of life.

As we honor our deceased in among flowers dampened by the rain and hazardous electrical wiring, we secretly utter a prayer for those we love and hope not to be accidentally electrocuted.

The sweet, sad years, the melancholy years,
Those of my own life, who by turns had flung
A shadow across me. Straightway I was ’ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,—
“Guess now who holds thee!”—“Death,” I said, But, there,
The silver answer rang, “Not Death, but Love.”

                                                                                 – Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Sonnets from the Portuguese.

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I morticini Halloween in Sicily

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The almost beautiful cemetery, decorated with flowers and light globes for All souls day.
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

According to the Roman Catholic traditions in Sicily the first two days of November are known as ‘All Saints day’ and ‘All Souls day’ (respectively dedicated to  the churches’ canonized Saints and the deceased).

As with most traditions they have become colourfully interpreted by popular culture and anticipated by the thirty first of October, good old fashioned Halloween in the States.

Here in Sicily on the night of ‘I morti’ the dearly departed benevolently pass by to leave gifts to children. It seems quite macabre but yes grandpa Joe or great aunt Milly bring small gifts like candy and toys. At first the whole idea freaked me out but looking at it in the context of this holiday here in Italy it is none other than a method to teach children not to fear death and recall their family heritage.

In the days leading up to Halloween people here are busily visiting their local cemeteries completing a personal family journey visiting all of their dearly departed, cleaning graves, bringing fresh flowers, paying for cemetery plots, lighting up decorative light globes around each grave and generally remembering their dead.

Italian cemeteries become almost beautiful, lit up by endless lights, lit by all the people who want to remember their ancestors.

So why wouldn’t great grandmama be pleased with little Jimmy who brought her flowers? She returns the kindness bringing him new coloured pencils for school.

Jimmy is happy the Morticini (literally a diminutive of ‘the dead’) visited him.

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An anonymous Morticino. She looks friendly enough.
©Rochelle Del Borrello 2013

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Missing my Nonno

Isn’t it amazing the surprises life has in stall for us? At times I’m a little overwhelmed by the strange new directions this journey has pulled me through some painful, others colourful, adventurous but all unexpected. I imagined myself at this stage working as a journalist in some t.v or radio station with a novel or two bubbling up in the background, yet I find myself living here in Sicily, Italy bringing up Matthias, doing it all in another language and feeling like someone has just hit me over the head and cancelled the past decade of my life from my memory.

The hardest loss has been that of my adorable Grandpa, who died two years ago now yet his loss is still palpable for many reasons. Firstly that I never got to say goodbye, we were planning to go back to Australia the year he died as I was expecting Matthias, but my mother in law got sick and we postponed, then he passed away and we didn’t end up going back at all. So I didn’t ever see my Nonno either alive nor at his funeral.

It’s going to be hard when we go back not to see him at the airport, or when I can’t hug him hello instead of goodbye like our final goodbye during my last flight out from Perth. It’s going to be difficult to see my Nonna (Grandmother) alone at my mother’s house as she is well into her eighties and has felt the loss of Nonno greatly.

I still feel him so strongly in my life. It hurts to think little Matthias will never know him, that I will never hear his voice calling me darlin’ again, that he won’t be grilling meat on the BBQ for Christmas, that he won’t be insisting that we eat and drink more than our own body weight. Simply that such a wonderful character is absent from our company when we desire him so much. What a huge hole to fill.

Yet, my dear Nonnino, you are still surprising me, as I stumbled on a picture of you at my last birthday at home in Perth, Western Australia. Do you remember? We went to Fremantle to eat at the Little Creatures Brewery. It was the hottest day of the year and we were all perspiring to death waiting for a free table, then we drank too much beer and went for ice cream after at Baskin and Robbin’s right there on the pier. I found a lovely casual candid photo that I took of you sitting next to your grandson Damian, son Fil and daughter in law Rosanna. You didn’t even see me take it, yet I am so glad I did because there you are my splendid, handsome Nonno. One look at you makes me remember every happiness in my life, for a moment you are still here, held close without realising.

     

 

Love from your darlin’