The Bones of the Dead
Halloween is celebrated on October 31st. It is the “Hallowed Evening” before the Feast of All Saints’ Day which celebrates all of the saints who have lived (and died) for the glory of God and didn’t end up with a feast day on the calendar of their own. In the United States, Halloween itself has become the major part of the holiday. It’s just another example of how the secular is trumping the sacred. (Think Santa Claus.)
Even though most of the traditions and symbols that are used for Halloween are rooted in ancient cultures from Europe, the idea of Halloween as we know it, is strictly American. Catholics hold November 1st as a Holy Day of Obligation to celebrate a mass. As kids, we would have to go to the 5:15 vigil with our parents with half of our costume on. The rest was hidden under our coats. We would suffer through it so we could go trick or treating and my mother was always telling us to offer it up for the souls of Purgatory. It was fitting because that is part of the history behind All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.
In Italy, All Saints’ Eve as it is called, has a tradition somewhat like trick or treating in that it requires walking the streets at night. Walking from church to church, they may light candles or leave flowers to honor the saints. ”Ognissanti” All Saints’ Day in Italy is a national holiday. Masses are held, and lots of businesses and schools are closed. Although now in Italy, the idea behind trick-or-treating is known and also sometimes acknowledged, the next two days are more important. November 1st, All Saints’ Day and November 2nd, All Souls’ Day or The Day of the Dead, “Il Giorno di Morte.”
On the 2nd, families will pray in particular for their own loved ones who has passed on. They may visit the cemeteries and clean the graves, plant flowers and light candles. It is a day of family and remembrance and connecting one generation to another. They spend the day together sharing love. They also like to eat the Bones of the Dead.
It’s a cookie. Gotcha!
It is called as such because for one, it looks like a bone, and they are only traditionally eaten at this time of year when we honor saints (and sinners) who have passed on.
Il Ossi dei Morte as they are known mark the beginning of the holy days….holidays. Italians very much have their faith tied into their food and their culture. Some of it stems from the persecution of Christians when they would have secret symbols to identify one another unbeknownst to the Roman soldiers. Rome, in particular was a thoroughly theocratic government. It wasn’t until Constantine that Christianity was accepted into the culture through the Edict of Milan. I think that has something more to do with Helena, his mother. Seriously. She would go off on her ancient Roman cruises with her Bingo friends and bring back souvenirs for her beloved boy. It’s much like that today only she would have things like, oh, I don’t know, the body of Saint Mark, the True Cross, the stairs of Pontius Pilate, severed heads. You know, those kinds of things. The altar for her tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica has a fresco of her dragging away the cross. It literally took Constantine to practically be hit over the head with a cross, (well, it was a vision) at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to finally listen to his mother. ”From this, win” was the message and he commanded the warriors to don their shields with crosses. Religion and government were interwoven so closely. This is why Italian culture is so steeped in faith. They also have the worst attendance at church world wide, so don’t be too impressed. However; at times of high holidays, Italians know how to do it right.
Bones of the Dead cookies are a wonderful way to incorporate more of the true meaning behind Halloween. Halloween itself started as a pagan ritual way before Christianity to scare off all of the spirits that may be lurking because of the Samhain from the Old Irish. It means “Summer’s End” and the Celts believed that this particular time of year changed the cosmos in a way that lured the dead back to their homes. In fact, Jack-o-Lanterns began as turnips. It wasn’t until the immigrants from Ireland couldn’t find turnips here in the US, that they turned to the pumpkin to carve.
Hallowmas was another name used for All Saints’ Day during the Middle Ages when the poor would go from door to door and beg for food in exchange for praying for the dearly departed loved ones of that home. Much like trick or treating, if they did not receive something to eat, they may instead “play a trick.”
It’s interesting to see how that even though each culture is so different, we are in fact, so much the same. Il Ossi dei Morte cookies can be found in a lot of the Romance language cultures. They are a reminder of our fate, and a remembrance of the ones before. So for this Halloween, mix up a batch of bones and share a in a tradition that is rich with meaning….and a little butter.