We all know All Saints Day, which is celebrated in Italy on November 1st, but did you know that in Italy (and not only) November 2nd is celebrated, too? Here is how.
I imagine you already know where the feast of All Saints comes from, but I’ll refresh your memory just in case: Saints started to be celebrated in the IV Century. The date of November 1st was chosen so that it would concur with the Samhain, the ancient Celtic celebration that would set the start of a new year, following the requests of the Irish Monastic order.
According to Celtic legends, during the night of the Samhain – the Halloween of today – the dead would come back to places they used to stay while in life, and playful celebration were held for them. It was Pope Gregorio III (731-741) who established the first of November as All Saint's Day and became a religious celebration thanks to French King Luigi il Pio in 835 who followed Pope Gregorio IV dictate. Even when Christian Catholic religion took over, deciding to celebrate November 2nd as the commemoration of the dead, this joyful aspect was never forgotten or forbidden.
Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
But how was decided to celebrate the Commemoratio Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum on November 2nd?
In the Latin Church this celebration is connected to the Benedectin abbot, Sant’Olione of Cluny in 998. With the reform of Cluny, in fact, all the bells of the Abbey would have been rung with funereal tolls after the November 1st vespers to remember deaths. During that day in Italy it is tradition to visit local cemeteries and bring flowers to the relatives’ tombs. In many towns of Italy it is common to prepare special sweet treats for the dead – called in fact dolci dei morti (desserts of the dead). In Sicily on the night of November 1st legend has it that the dead bring gifts to children who place a basket outside the window while praying for their relatives' souls. In the morning of November 2nd the children have to look for the gifts around the house. During the night of November 2nd it was custom to leave small shoes on children’s tombs because people thought that for that night they return among the living.
William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Day of the Dead, 1859
Sources also say that in Sicily the tradition of exchanging gifts during Christmas arrived fairly recently. Before that, it was this celebration that substituted it, still important today as not taken from North Europe like Christmas but originated in Italy.
Written by: Elisa della Barba