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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E viva San Leone … E musica

San Leone inspired ceramic designs at Longi. Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
San Leone inspired ceramic designs at Longi.
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello

This year I was fortunate enough to get to San Leone’s ‘festa’ at Longi (20th Feb) which I find is generally more traditional and particular then the one celebrated at Sinagra (even if I love them both!)

I liked the solemn religiosity and playfulness of Longi’s interpretation of this Saint’s celebration. Not only does the procession take the Saint’s statue around the town, it has him dancing to the time of the local brass band. Leone doesn’t move without musical accompaniment, here the catchphrase is ‘Viva Santu Leo … E musica!’

Traditional procession of San Leone, 2014. Photo by: Rochelle Del Borrello
Traditional procession of San Leone, 2014.
Photo by: Rochelle Del Borrello

The face of San Leone is always the same yet the elaborate decoration gives Longi’s festa a more traditional feel, here he is decorated in flowers, monetary offerings, bells chiming, threaded wheat shafts, golden vestments and the local children adore him too. The procession lasts nearly the whole day from after the late morning church service until four o’clock in the afternoon when he is placed down in the square before the parish church to receive final offerings and salutes from the devout.

Religious procession. Photo by: Rochelle Del Borrello
Religious procession.
Photo by: Rochelle Del Borrello

During the procession the warmth the locals have to their patron is palpable and it quite frankly gave me goosebumps. A saint’s day in a small town is a particularly special occasion everyone puts on their best face and there is a real sense of pride and religiosity through out the day, it is an exceptional Sicilian tradition.

San Leone of Longi in all of his baroque glory. Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
San Leone of Longi in all of his baroque glory.
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
Children and people casually milling around San Leone. Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
Children and people casually milling around San Leone.
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello
A proudly displayed religious relic of San Leone. Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello.
A proudly displayed religious relic of San Leone.
Photo by Rochelle Del Borrello.

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For more details on San Leone and other Sicilian saints see my article on Times of Sicily.

Walking in the footsteps of San Leone

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San Leone 8th May 2013 (© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013)

The 8th of May marks the celebration of the Patron Saint of Sinagra, San Leone. A feast with religious services and processions throughout the day. I followed the Statue of Santu Lio for most of the day, photographing his ambling march around this drowsy little Sicilian town.

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San Leone in Piazza San Teodoro, Sinagra 8 maggio 2013 (© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013)

There is a morning mass followed by a leisurely cortege down from the main Church of St Michael the Archangel to the main square and then back up to the church. In the afternoon there is another church ceremony and the well rested Saint is taken for a run down the main street of Sinagra, up to the piazza and then goes to bless the dearly departed at the local cemetery before returning to his home in the church.

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(© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013)

It is obvious that Saint Leo is held in high esteem by the Sinagrese who adoringly follow his processions, cheering him along with the occasional roaring ‘Viva San Leone!’ Children and elderly people are encouraged to ride along with the Saint and there are many monetary offerings made by people along the parade.

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(© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013)
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(© Rochelle Del Borrello 2013)

While walking a stretch along side San Leone, I had a feeling that the commemoration has lost its solemnity. The Saint is carried by young men who seem more interested in showing off their fashion sense and bravado in carrying a heavy load rather than reciting prayers to their ancient patron Saint. Sadly Italy has become deeply secularised and so such religious celebrations have become little more than gaudy tourist attractions and occasions  to parade along the local catwalk. I hope San Leone can forgive the modern Sinagrese for their superficiality.

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Buono come’ il pane : As good as bread

It is very Sicilian to say someone is as good as bread.There is nothing better or pure and simple as freshly baked bread. Lui e’ buono come pane means he is as ‘good as gold’ as Australians say.

 

Sicilians are less materialistic in their turn of phrase, history has made them humble and appreciate the gift of bread to an empty stomach.

 

For Easter Sicilians use their good bread to pay tribute to the promise of new life spring brings and the hope that Jesus’s religious sacrifice gives to Roman Catholics.

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The ‘cuddurunni’ bread decorated with eggs (some coloured red from boiling them with the root of a native plant) is the traditional Easter gift.

Before the chocolate kinder surprise filled eggs there were the Cuddurunni a symbolic gift that gave others the intrinsic goodness of bread with the springtime delicacies of oven baked eggs. Most chickens in the historically agricultural society of Sicily probably didn’t lay eggs in the harsh winters and so they literally had to wait for spring even for their eggs!

 

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So here’s having a good Easter filled with simplicity and being buono come pane.

 

Unwilling Expat 

 

P.S: The photo’s are of my very clever sister in law Antonella’s baking prowess.