Remembering saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year has been a Christian tradition since the 4th Century AD, but it wasn’t until 609AD that Pope Boniface IV decided to remember all martyrs. Originally May 13th was designated as the Feast of All Holy Martyrs. Later, in 837AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the festival to remember all the saints, changed its name to Feast of All Saints and changed the date to November 1st. The reason for the switch was to replace the pagan festival of celebrating the return to earth of witches and demons during the beginning of agricultural dormancy does October 31st ring a bell?
The idea behind this new holiday was that if you missed praying to the saint on his/her specified date, you could make up for it on November 1st. The following day, Commemorazione dei defunti or All Souls Day, is reserved to honour loved ones who are deceased and who are currently in purgatory.
Italians celebrate the two holidays together, both in association with the Fall harvest. The festivities begin the evening of October 31st where they gather together to indulge in a typical feast. The menu usually includes the new unfermented wine from the year’s harvest, known as Ribolla or Novello. Later, when children are put to bed, small presents are placed around the house to be found the following morning. This is done because children are told that if they behave well the souls of the deceased family members will remember them and bring presents.
After the goodies have been collected, everyone goes to mass and followers are required to try not to do any servile work for the rest of the day. On All Souls Day, they proceed to the cemetery to visit the graves of their loved ones. It’s customary to bring offerings of Fall flowers to decorate the graves. That evening another feast is enjoyed and the menu here usually includes such things as peas or lentils, which are considered Soul Food. Many homes will set empty places and leave the door open for the souls of the deceased. And now for the best part: the feast is finished up by indulging in the sweet cookie known as “Ossi di Morto” or “Bones of the Dead”.