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Days devoted to the departed: Ognissanti and Giorno dei Morti celebrations date to Roman times


Nov. 1 is a national holiday in Italy, with schools, governments offices and businesses closing so Italians can observe a day of prayer to honor the saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church.

This Ognissanti celebration dates back to the 4th century A.D. when feasts commemorating all Christian martyrs were held in various places and on various dates near Easter and Pentecost. The Christian calendar is dedicated to a saint or martyr every day, but on this day they are all honored.

Ognissanti commemorates all saints and martyrs. | ADOBESTOCK

Ognissanti is followed by Giorno dei Morti (also known as All Souls’ Day or Day of the Dead) on Nov. 2. On that day, families pray for their late relatives and visit the cemeteries to leave flowers.  The most common choice for flowers is colorful and vivid chrysanthemums.

Historical records indicate that on May 13, in either 609 or 610 A.D., Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome as the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the martyrs. The conversion of the pagan temple to a Catholic church was to be celebrated thereafter on an annual basis on that date.

By the year 800 A.D., there is written evidence that churches across western Europe were celebrating Ognissanti on Nov. 1. It was later decreed a day of obligation throughout the Frankish Empire in 835 A.D. Emperor Louis the Pious issued the order at the insistence of Pope Gregory IV and with the approval of all the bishops.

Families remember loved ones on All Souls’ Day. | ADOBESTOCK

During these original celebrations, the Christians would stroll around villages requesting a sweet known as soul bread. They would then offer prayers for the deceased of the donor giving the treat.

These traditions continue today but vary across the regions of Italy. In Sicily it is believed that on the eve of Ognissanti, the dead will bring treats to well behaved children. In Matera, in the region of Basilicata, the custom is that the departed will come down from the cemetery holding a lighted candle in their right hand. Sardinia has its own tradition where children go house to house and ask for offerings for the dead.

The curved colonnades at St. Peter’s Basilica feature 140 saints sculpted by Bernini and his students.

In Rome it was customary to partake of a meal near the grave of a departed person so they would not be alone but in Abruzzo and Trentino the holiday’s observance was to carve pumpkins and place a candle inside to be used as a beacon of light.

In Val d’Aosta, people would gather in front of fires and prepare tables with food as an offering for deceased souls. In Lombardy it was customary to leave a vessel filled with water in the kitchen to quench the thirst of a deceased soul. In the north, in Trentino Alto Adige, church bells are rung to beckon souls of the departed and they also prepare a table with food.

Torrone dei morti, shaped like coffins, are a popular Neopolitan treat for ognissanti.

There are a variety of dolci (sweets) specific to this holiday with variations across the country. Lombardy is known for ossa dei morti (bones of the dead) which are cookies with almonds and hazelnuts sometimes shaped as bones. Puglia offers colva, a sweet made with wheat, chocolate, walnuts, and pomegranate.

Culinary treats offered in the regions of Umbria, Lombardia, Emilia Romagna, Le Marche and Lazio are called fave dei morti. These are almond pastries comparable to macaroons. In Umbria they are referred to as stinchetti dei morti. Sicily prepares martorana sweets, also known as lu scacciu, a mix of dried fruits composed of toasted pumpkin seeds, pistachios, toasted hazelnuts, peanuts, and toasted chickpeas. In Veneto, it is a tradition for lovers to give each other a bag of these sweets as a promise of eternal love.

Fave dei morti is a sweet made in several regions at this time of year.

In Trentino, pumpkins which were used as lanterns are used in risotto recipes. One of the most popular Italian sweets is torrone and during this time of year in Naples it is prepared as torrone dei morti in the shape of a coffin.

Il giorno di Ognissanti is also linked to “Samhain,” a Celtic festival which is tied to our Halloween celebrations.

The traditions of the original celebrations of Ognissanti have become less common in Italy but are still honored with special masses. While many Italians choose more secular activities during these celebrations, vestiges of past traditions are still part of these two holidays.  In areas where families live in or near their birthplace, they will visit the cemeteries where their loved ones have been laid to rest. Many will travel home to pay their respects. It is also a time to enjoy special meals and desserts that are specific to the holiday.

One custom that is very much alive in Italy is sending best wishes to friends and family on their onomastico. This celebration, tied to a person’s name, is as important as a person’s birthdate. It is celebrated on the saint’s day that carries that name. For example, if your name is Cecelia your onomastico would be on the feast day of Santa Cecelia on Nov. 22. A male with the name Leonardo would celebrate his onomastico on the feast day for Santo Leonardo on Nov. 6.

Of course, with the celebration of All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1, everyone should get a call or text or a personal greeting of auguri. Honoring saints takes place not just on Nov. 1 but across the year and in all corners of Italy. Each city and small town have a patron saint who is honored not just with a feast day but also with immortality in the sculptures and art that depict their lives. In small towns you will often see shrines devoted to different saints.

The patron saint of our family’s town is San Sebastiano. His statue is kept in the mother church and is taken out once a year and carried through the streets in a solemn procession. In town there is also a shrine to San Martiro as well as Sister Maria Nazarena Majone di Graniti. Born in this small village in the province of Messina, she founded the Institute of the daughters of Divine Zeal in 1897.   Although she has not yet been declared a saint, the process of canonization for her began on Jan. 8, 1992.

The patron saint of Rome is St. Peter, and St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice. Naples has more than 50 official patron saints but the main one is St. Januarius. The patron saint for Abruzzo is St. Gabriel while Florence’s patron saint is St. John the Baptist.

Certain Catholic saints are known for protections they offer to specific groups or purpose. Some are protectors of people; St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, soldiers and police officers are protected by St. Michael the Archangel, travelers are under the protection of St. Christopher and for students St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers and St. Jude for lost causes. St. Francis of Assisi is prayed to for the protection of animals.

One of the most majestic tributes to saints in one place are the colonnades of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The two colonnades, which were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was appointed “Architect of St Peter’s” in 1629, are made up of four rows of columns and are decorated with 140 statues of various saints which include former popes, martyrs, and other Christian figures. Bernini and his students created these statues over a period of forty years with a design created to signify the welcoming maternal arms of the church.

Visitors who gaze upon this architectural feat may not have more detailed information on the saints who are represented on top of the colonnades but can learn more by visiting St. Peter’s Basilica official website which has a diagram listing the names and areas they are placed.

The colonnades were built with travertine marble from nearby Tivoli and were designed with a very unique feature. The four columns are visible from just about any area of St. Peter’s Square as well as when walking through them. However, there is a specific point in the square (which is noted on the ground) where the columns disappear and give the impression of one single row.

At the apex of the cathedral’s grand entrance, there are 13 statues which were crafted between 1612 and 1614 by various sculptors. The central figure is Christ the redeemer. With just a quick glance, visitors might think Christ is surrounded by his 12 apostles but that is not the case. To his left is St. John the Baptist and on his right is St. Andrew. Other saints represented are St. Thaddeus, St. Matthew, St. Phillip, St. Thomas, St. James the Great. St. John the Evangelist, St. James the Less, St. Bartholomew, St. Simon, and St. Matthias.

Today the faithful remain true to the patron saints of their immigrant origins, not just here in the U.S. but across the globe where millions of descendants of Italians now reside.

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