30: What I learned about life from the day of the dead in Italy

by | Dec 22, 2020 | Podcast | 0 comments

All around the world, the end of October and early November is a time to celebrate the enduring connection between the dead and the living.

In the U.S., we celebrate Halloween on October 31 every year, and while it may seem so, this isn’t just a randomly selected day by candy manufacturers.

It’s the night before All Saints’ Day or La Festa di Ogni Santi, in Italian.

All Saints’ Day in Italy, as well as other places around the world, is a special and sacred holiday. In Italy, it is always November 1st and it is the day to honor all the saints found in Catholicism.

The origins of this holiday in Italy date back to the very beginning of Christianity, and Catholics and Italians everywhere attend mass to honor their favorite saints.

For me, however, as a resident in Italy, I find the day following All Saints’ Day to be the more interesting holiday.

November 2 is Il Giorno dei Morti, which translate to All Souls’ Day or Day of the Dead.

Although this sounds like a scary tradition, it’s actually beautiful.

After celebrating and honoring the lives of saints, the day after is dedicated to honoring the lives of the people close to us who have passed on.

This episode, I wanted to take a few extra minutes to share a special story. 

A few years ago,  I was lucky to be in my family’s hometown in Southern Italy, where traditions are still deeply rooted, and was able to take part in this beautiful celebration.

On the morning of All Souls’, while I drank my cappuccino and blearily eyed my cousin who somehow was way more awake than me, I was informed it was a sacred holiday and that we had to hurry up and get ready.

When I asked where we were going, my cousin enthusiastically informed me that we were going to the cemetery, and I was gently reminded to wear my absolute best.

I couldn’t understand her happiness, or why I needed to get so dressed up, but I went along with it anyway and trudged off to prepare for the day.

Upon arrival at the town cemetery, I was shocked at how many people were there with us; we barely found parking four blocks away!

Everyone donned their Sunday best, the women in heels and stockings and the men in top hats and ties. Children were dressed impeccably and some had brought balloons and flowers.

Entering the cemetery was like going to a subdued party.

Everyone was chatting happily and children were running around gleefully.

I didn’t really understand what was happening or what I was witnessing until I heard a little girl, tugging on her mom’s coat, “Mamma! Hurry up! I want to visit grandma and thank her for my new toys! Hurry up! HURRY UP!”

Once my cousin saw my open mouth and lack of comprehension of how a dead grandmother could have left gifts for this child, she explained to me that on this day, the dead visit their family and leave little gifts for the children all around the house.

I remarked how in America, a cemetery is almost never a happy place filled with children’s laughter, and my cousin then pointed out that she had seen that in movies and she thought it was because our ideas about death were inherently different.

She told me how death isn’t a scary ordeal for them because at least once a year, everyone comes to clean your grave, say hello and thank you for their ancestral heritage.

They’ve accepted it as a normal part of life.

I was nearly moved to tears by the beauty and peace in which these people had accepted the inevitable flow of life, particularly from such an early age.

And, as I was lead around the cemetery that day, my cousin patiently pointing out every aunt, uncle, great great great grandparent, cousin and fourth aunt twice removed that rested there, I felt an intense sense of peace instead of sadness.

Because of this beautiful tradition, these people aren’t forgotten, but honored, appreciated and loved.

I visited at least 20 relatives that day. Per tradition, I kissed all of their headstones, and followed my cousins lead as we stopped at each gave, silently thanking each one of them for living their life many years ago, that led to mine, today.


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Ciao, I'm Rachel

I am obsessed with everything Italian! After years living in Italy, being married to an Italian, getting my Italian citezenship through my Pugliese lineage, a BA in Italian language and literature, then a MA in Italian Art History, I have lots of experience with this country! Hang out with me to learn more!