November 2nd can be a confusing day for an uninformed child in Italy.
All Souls Day, which celebrates the lives of lost loved ones and anticipates a visit from them during the day, is celebrated all over Italy, and most regions and towns have their own popular traditions.
In Sicily, they go big.
Sicilians will make tiny almond pastry sweets lovingly-hewn into fruit shapes, called ‘Frutta Martorana’ and lay them out in baskets in their children's bedrooms overnight. Children wake up to baskets full of confectionery fruits and are told that these ‘cannistri ri morti', or ‘baskets from the dead’ are gifts from lost loved ones, much like Christmas day, but with a visit from the deceased, instead of Father Christmas.
I actually experienced this tradition first hand, one half-term circa 1997. I stayed with an elderly Sicilian relative whose husband had died some years previous. I’d only met him once but on that occasion he’d threatened to smack me with a broom and had thrown my dinner in the bin when I said I didn’t like beans, so I cast him as the villain in my life at a young age.
I too probably would have reveled in the heady rush of finding a basket full of confectionery fruit in my room, like most Italian children, had I not awoken to said elderly woman beaming ‘look cara! A basket from the dead! From your uncle!’. I spent the next six years of my life fearing the annual return of a deranged (and deceased) old Sicilian man who deposited strange sweets in the middle of the night,
But, for a well-informed child, and for everybody else, celebrating All Souls Day is a really lovely ritual. It’s not macabre at all, it’s a celebration of the lives of lost ones rather than a commemoration of the dead. And, talking so openly about death makes the prospect of it a little less daunting. Especially if there are pastries involved.
The tradition of giving Frutta Martorana on All Souls Day is strictly Sicilian. Sicilians say the sweets were named after Martorana, a Benedictine monastery in Palermo. Apparently, Nuns prepared the fruits to decorate bare trees ahead of a visit from an Archbishop, who was so impressed with the sweets that he declared a miracle must have passed. Sicilians have been serving them up ever since.
Sadly, other regional All Souls traditions lack the confectionery. In Lombardy, they leave a bottle of water out to quench the thirst of returning souls, whilst in Friuli Venezia, they leave out a lamp, bucket of water and bread to ensure souls can find their way home. In Liguria, grandparents are traditionally enlisted to tell scary stories to their grandchildren after cooking beans and chestnuts to celebrate. In fact, in some parts of Italy, its tradition to lay a table for the dead, just to ensure they don’t get FOMO when they return to earth.
Londoners who fancy trying Frutta Martorana (they taste as good as they instagram), ETNA is your best bet. This Sicilian bakery specializes in sweet treats and local delicacies.