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Everything is related to Naples
Number 133 in this series. Link to all items here.


Halloween decorations have already sprouted in shop windows in parts of Naples. This is much too early, especially for a place that doesn't celebrate Halloween. Witches, goblins, Walpurgisnacht, and Night on Bald Mountain—none of that is really part of southern Italian mythology unless you head over to the area near Benevento, where, indeed, they celebrate the tregenda magica—the Witches' Sabbath, a throwback to the long presence in that area of the Longobards, a Germanic people. (Click here to read an entry with more information on the Longobards.)

Halloween in Naples is simply more globalization—this one of holidays. Northern European and American Christmas icons—for example, Santa Claus and Christmas trees—are common here only since the end of WW2. My mother-in-law was living in northern Italy in WW2, where she had young German soldiers quartered in her house. She was amazed a few days before Christmas to see them setting up a small fir tree in her living room.

"Get that tree out of my house!" she yelled.
"But, mamma," they said (even—or, maybe, especially young German soldiers needed a mother figure), "it's Christmas!"

That didn't make much sense to her. A tree? She had never heard of such a thing before. She was from Naples and was used to the Neapolitan presepe as a symbol of the Yuletide.  She threatened to stop cooking for them and let her daughter (my wife's sister) take over the kitchen. "Ach, nein!" was pretty much how the Wehrmacht felt about that possibility. In retrospect, that single act, alone, might have shortened the war by a number of months, but, alas, a cultural rapprochement was reached. The tree stayed, and she kept cooking.

[That's all true. There's a short story about it here.]

update: Halloween 2008. I can't believe it. We just got trick-or-treated! In Italy. "Dolcetto o scherzetto!" they screamed—a rough translation of "trick or treat." Somehow they had got past the sentries, dogs and electrified fence and made it to our door. I tried to talk to them in English and explain the fine points of leaving bags of flaming poo at the doors of uncooperative kill-joys such as I have heard tell of the good old days. They got bored and left.

I was hasty in my rant (above) about Halloween being totally foreign to most of Italy. The eerie rituals northern invaders brought to Italy probably stem from an earlier group of northerners, the Celts. They were first mentioned as a separate people by Greek historians in about 500 b.c., who put them in what is now southern France, inland from what is now the city of Marseille. The Celts (known to the Romans as “Gauls”) were an explosive, ferocious people who invaded throughout Europe as far east as Macedonia. They invaded northern Italy and fought the Etruscans and even sacked Rome in about 400 b.c. but were eventually—along with everyone else—overwhelmed by the Roman juggernaut. The Celts imploded as quickly as they had exploded, retreated to the British Isles, hunkered down and became the descendants of the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish.

The recent spate of trick-or-treating kids on Halloween in Naples may stem from global market forces eager to sell plastic pumpkins made in China to Italian kids so they can look more like what they see in reruns of The Addams Family, but the trappings of modern Halloween—the macabre costumes, devils, ghosts, witches and warlocks—are European in origin. Eerie rituals on the night before All-Saints Day (Nov. 1) have existed for centuries in many parts of Italy, including Naples; however, authentic rituals are becoming harder and harder to find and in many places have died out except in small towns and villages. In those places where they still hang on, they are Celtic. The Celtic New Year began on Nov. 1 (the modern Gaelic/Celtic word for November is Samhain (pronounced  “saw-in”); that is also the name of the ritual festival for the dead on the the last night of October, that is, Samhain eve .) It was the beginning of the “dark” half of the year. Samhain eve was considered a time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurred and loosened, allowing spirits of the departed to revisit the living. That was the premise—the dead can come back for a visit. They can cause trouble, too, so it is a good idea to be nice to them, leave some food out, etc.

Modern Halloween is the result of a massive amount of cultural conflating. First, the Romans had re-taken most Celtic lands by 43 a.d.; the Romans blended the Celtic Samhain festival for the dead into their own festival of Feralia, a day in late October when they traditionally commemorated the dead. They also added another holiday, the one that honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple; incorporating this celebration into the old Celtic Samhain may explain the tradition of "bobbing" for apples on Halloween. Then, in the 800s, Pope Boniface IV proclaimed Nov. 1 to be All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day a day to honor the saints and martyrs as well as your own dearly departed. The night before was, thus, All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween)—and, thus, the pre-Christian Celtic holiday of the dead as well as the later Roman one had fused into a single Church-sanctioned holiday.

In Italy, from Valle d’Aosta in the north to Sicily in the south, there are traditions that are said to have stuck, although, as noted, in a big city they are hard to spot. In some villages it is customary to set an extra place at the dinner table for the spirits. There are places near Venice where pumpkins are emptied, painted and set with candles inside, the light of which represents the resurrection. In Emilia they practice Carità di murt (charity for the dead) with supplicants going from door to door begging food for the spirits. In the south, in Puglia, they not only set extra places at the table but may even go to the cemetery, itself, for a tomb-side banquet. And in Sicily, young children are given gifts of candy and fruit. The gifts come from the spirits and are rewards for having been good during the year.

[related item on The Witches of Benevento]

to portal index for traditions & customs

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