When we think of the Day of The Dead, we think of sugar skulls and the stories that we hear about the celebrations of this festival day from Central and South America. However, The holiday isn’t just a Spanish based holiday. It is in fact a festival day that is part of the Catholic holidays and is celebrated in certain places in Europe as well. Sicily celebrates this holiday and its similarities strike a similar reflection of its celebrants across the pond. In fact, until a few years ago, the festival of the dead was the only Sicilian celebration where gifts were exchanged.
Today, the days leading up to November 2nd are filled with hundreds of Fiere dei Morti or Fairs of the Dead. The fairs are filled with all sorts of sweets like the Frutta di Martorana which is almond paste made into the shape of different fruits and is usually accompanied by pupatelli (biscuits filled with toasted almonds) and taralli, which is a ring cake covered in icing.
As a gift giving holiday as well as a celebration, there are toys of all shapes and sizes which parents can buy for the children’s Cannistru, which is a basket filled with gifts, dried fruits, and other local delicacies. These baskets are prepared the night before so that the parents can surprise their children in the morning. In the mean time, children hide the graters around the house because the dead have the habit of visiting naughty children and grating their feet while they sleep!
When the children wake up on November 2nd, it’s a day filled with excitement. The children begin a treasure hunt around the house looking for the presents their parents got for them for the Cannistru. At breakfast, a muffoleta is traditionally served. Unlike the one of our creole friends down in Louisiana, this one is usually served with olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano, anchovies, and a few slices of primosale cheese.
After everyone has been fed, and the presents have been found, the whole family will go to the cemetery, carrying flowers. Here, they will light candles, play among the graves to show appreciation for the toys received, and then enjoy a good feast. In some places, people will go to the family crypt to wash the deceased and comb their hair. Even today, there are many who still visit the crypt of the Capuchins in Palermo on this day.
Sicilians even create something reminiscent to the sugar skull and sugar skeleton figures. The Pupi ri zuccaru are sugar puppets. Traditionally, these sugar puppets were made in the forms of knights and paladins on horseback. Today, they often are done in the likeness of soccer players and dancers, however, many still make the traditional sugar puppets, showing how tradition truly runs deep among the Sicilians.
No one sheds tears on this day, for although throughout Italy and the rest of the world the dead are remembered and honored. On November 2nd in Italy, the dead are celebrated!