"Si nun vennu li morti, nun camminanu li vivi"
"Vennu li morti pri camminari li vivi"
"Dddopu li morti caminanu li vivi"
Pitrè, "Proverbi siciliani"
Pitrè, "Proverbi siciliani"
I have many memories about growing up in the 1940s in the town of Librizzi. Certainly holidays are part of these memories, the Festa dei morti is one of the more colorful and festive holidays that I remember.
The “Festa dei Morti” is celebrated on November 2, but the preparations for the Festa would begin several days before. Each year on the first of November, my brother and I were sent to the homes of relatives and friends to collect the flowers which would decorate the family tombs in the cemetery. In Sicily the traditional flower for the dead is the Chrysanthemum, a flower that I very much like. Mom would stay home to prepare the traditional Ossa dei Morti, hard teeth-breaking white cookies in the shape of skeletons and bones. Once the cookies were out of the oven, she would go shopping for the other traditional dolci for the Festa dei Morti. These sweets were made of marzipan and shaped into every imaginable fruit, colored and decorated. They were works of art and at first glance they truly looked like the real pear, peach, orange, lemon, strawberry, etc.
In Palermo these artistic creations are called Frutta Martorana. The Palermitani also prepare the ‘pupi i zuccaro’. The Pupi are made from a sweet dough, in the form of statuettes and cleverly hand colored. The Pupi may represent the classic characters from fairy tales such as Cinderella or Pinocchio, or current characters such as Pokemon!
For the children this was a very festive time because we knew that during the night our dead relatives would stop by the house and leave small gifts under our pillows including the Ossa dei Morti, the marzipan fruit, lots of unshelled nuts, and real fruit. We also knew that the same kind of gifts were waiting for us at the homes of relatives and friends (I guess this phase of the holiday is similar to Halloween in the USA). Everywhere that we went we could hear the musicians practicing the musical selections to be performed at the cemetery on the day of the Festa.
When the Festa dei Morti finally arrived, children, parents, grandparents, assorted relatives, the young and the old, all went to the cemetery to decorate the tombs with flowers, listen to the Priest, recite prayers for the dead, enjoy the musical offerings which were actually lively marches (not too different from the New Orleans festive funeral processions), and above all to socialize with the living. The Festa went on well into the night when everybody returned home to eat a special holiday meal.
The Festa di Morti in Sicily doesn’t represent a day of sorrow, but rather it is a happy day especially for the children.
I grew up during a very nasty war and the holidays were a welcomed excuse to forget the reality that surrounded us. My memories from those times are bittersweet but I am glad that I can look back and know that the celebration of the dead actually brought joy into our lives.
I do not recall reciting any sayings or little rhymes but I have read that children in various parts of Sicily do recite little rhymes the day of the Festa di Morti. The following is one of the popular rhymes in Sicilian, Italian, and a translation into English:
Armi santi, armi santi,
Iu sugnu unu e vùatri siti tanti:
Mentri sugnu ‘ntra stu munnu di guai
Cosi di morti mittitimìnni assai.
Anime sante, anime sante,
Io sono uno e voi siete tanti:
Mentre sono in questo mondo di guai
Cose di morti metteteneme molte.
(regali dei morti mettetemi in abbondanza)
Saintly souls, saintly souls,
I am only one but you are many:
While I live in this troubled world
Leave me lots of gifts.