It is difficult to say exactly when vigilia d’Ognissanti or Halloween first took hold in Italy. This spooky day seems to have floated into existence like a ghost, almost without notice. Some sources say that it was around the 1990s when Italy first fell under the spell of American television programs and their merchandizing. It eventually caught on as a festive day among Italian youth who offered their own version of the “Trick or Treat” ultimatum by a declaration of “Dolcetto o Scherzetto,” which is their version of Trick or Treat but which literally means “Dessert or Joke.”
In recent years, the celebration of Halloween has made its way into Italy’s list of holidays. The sight of children in costume running through the streets and advertisements by restaurants and clubs boasting of the best Halloween parties have become commonplace.
Halloween, the last day of October, falls before two important religious holidays: November 1, Ognissanti or Tutti i Santi, All Saints Day and the following day, Il Giorno dei Morti, which, in English, goes by the name of All Souls Day. Many cemeteries in Italy are crowded on these holidays, since Italians pay respects to their ancestors by cleaning and decorating their graves with flowers, wreaths and votive candles. Yet, notwithstanding the customs of these two days, the eve of All Saints Day had received practically no acknowledgement … until lately.
It seems that each year, over the last couple of decades, there are an increasing number of festivities indicating that Halloween is becoming part of Italian culture. Italians look for Halloween costumes and decorations almost as much as they do in preparation for Carnevale.
As strange as it may seem, Halloween actually had its origin in Europe and was brought to America by immigrants (Celts) who came with their customs of pre-All-Saints-Day activities. The Celts were people who lived in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern France as early as 2,000 years ago. They celebrated November 1 in honor of Samhain, (pronounced Sah-ween), meaning “summer’s end.”
Samhain was known as the lord of death. Since winter was the season of cold and darkness and the time when many things died, Samhain, was connected to human death. The Celtic festival claimed that during Samhain, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living. It was believed that demons, spirits and witches roamed around at night and could only be pacified by presenting a feast in their honor, which may or may not have given rise to the custom of Trick or Treat. One could avoid being haunted by the spirits if one appeared to dress like them. They honored the dead by building bonfires which was believed to aid the spirits on their journey and keep them away from the living.
The Ancient Romans celebrated a holiday known as “Feralia” which served to honor the dead. It took place in the month of February which was, at that time, the end of the Roman year. In their ancient religion, the Romans worshiped the “Manes” or “Di Manes,” deities thought to be representative of the souls of deceased loved ones. Their custom required them to bring offerings of wreaths, grain, salt and bread soaked in wine as well as violets to be scattered about.
Another version of Halloween’s origin claims that when the Romans conquered Britain, the Roman feast of Feralia was combined with the Celtic Samhain. The origin of Halloween seems to have been derived from a number of customs and traditions from the ancient Romans to the Celts and eventually became tied to Christianity. And according to some historians, much of Halloween had to do with the Christian church in its endeavor to discourage pagan beliefs and practices.
The church could not help but take notice of these pagan activities. In its effort to deal with pagan holidays, the church instituted major changes in its policies. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory (the First) issued a decree to his missionaries concerning native beliefs and customs of potential converts. Instead of obliterating native customs and beliefs, the missionaries were instructed to use them to compromise the native customs with Christianity. It became an effective approach to missionary work.
Accordingly, some church holy days were set to coincide with native holy days. For example, Christmas was assigned a date of December 25 to correspond to mid-winter celebrations of many people and winter solstice.
It was May 13, 609 AD when Pope Boniface IV re-consecrated the Pantheon in Rome, renaming it the “Church of St. Mary and the Martyrs,” establishing this day as a day of remembrance for all the Church’s martyrs. Over a century later, Pope Gregory III changed the date of remembrance to November 1, dedicating an oratory in the original St. Peters Basilica in honor of “All Saints” to represent those saints who did not otherwise have a special day devoted to them. It was also intended that this November 1 holiday would substitute for Samhain and draw the devotion of the Celtic people. Although the Celtic deities did fade somewhat, they maintained much of their existence in the form of fairies and leprechauns of more recent traditions.
But what does all this have to do with Halloween? Well, All Saints Day was also known as All Hallows Day, the word “Hallow” meaning something honored as holy. The day before All Hallows Day became known as All Hallows Eve and over time, through colloquial contraction, Hallows Eve became known as Hallow-eve and eventually Halloween. The customs related to Halloween’s English-speaking world were, for the most part, superstitions which later developed into fun activities and which seemingly lost their ties to paganism.
Italy’s celebration of Halloween goes far beyond a mere Dolcetto o Scherzetto. In typical Italian style, each town boasts of providing the best of Halloween celebrations. The Devil’s Bridge in Borgo a Mossano, and an interactive game called La Notte Nera or Black Night and horror movies are shown all night long. Corinaldo, in central Italy’s le Marche region, features spooky attractions, and taverns culminating on Halloween night with a show of music, fire, and lights all around the town. All Saints Eve Walk in many Italian cities include special night visits to medieval towers, crypts, dungeons and castles.
So if you’re planning to be frightened for Halloween, try visiting Italy. Many towns offer several chilling displays of mummies and bones in catacombs, churches, and crypts which are not made to look like the real thing because they are the real thing. Not recommended for young children. Buon Vigilia d’Ognissanti!