Halloween, Here and There: "Here" is where we are now, Italy. "There" is our other existence, on the other side of the Atlantic. Halloween traditions here and there are a mix and match situation -- the traditions historically and currently overlap.
The ancient Roman had complex traditions about honoring the dead. Death masks of forebears were kept in home entrance hallways to greet visitors, and frequent remembrances of the family dead and the ability to communicate with them were fixtures of the ancient Roman Religion. The February 21 Feralia observance, the annual culmination of Parentalia death rituals, came at the end of the Roman year, starting the last week of the year's least auspicious month, Februa mensi, the month of expiation and purification before the start of the new year. The Feralia festa had two purposes: to make the afterlife more comfortable for the spirits of your own good ancestors, and to prevent any bad ones of yours or anybody else's bad ancestors, from harming you or your family. Food and flowers were left at gravesites, and wine was poured directly into graves (through small built-in openings) for the good guys.
The dangerous spirits weren't in graves. They were either out haunting, out of pure cussedness, or they didn't even have a grave because they had not been given proper burial rituals. And they were especially dreaded during those dark year-end days around the Feralia when portals could open between the lands of the dead and of the living.
The just-plain-bad ghosts, called Larvi, had to be driven away or tricked out of your house with rituals involving the black variety of fava beans. The rituals varied from place to place and over time, but the most commonly recorded home ceremony required the master of the house. The "pater familias", to fill his mouth with dried hard beans and spit them backward one by one over his shoulder. (Really, I am not making this up!) The bad spirits would swoop down, grab the beans, and take them outside. At the end of the ritual, the doors and windows would be closed with special prayers, and the spooks couldn't get back in. Anyone who had to get in or out could mutter a special formula to prevent the spirits' reentry. At the end of the Feralia it was again safe to air the house.
Lemurs could also be sent away in the same manner, but a better way, especially if the Lemurs had been good ancestors or friends, would be to find their bones and bury or cremate them with the proper rituals. Then they'd no longer be a danger to you or anyone else.
New spirit problems crept into Italy after the Romans encountered the tribes of the British Isles and northern France. Roman troops brought back with them Celtic spirits and some Samhain observances (they apparently didn't burn sacrifices, but they did know that the Celts had done so). Aside from the beans, they Samhain rituals were similarly concerned with evacuating or settling the spirits of the dead. Samhain (apparently pronounced 'sow-en') was also a year-end ritual, but the Celtic year ended at the end of October. Rome dominated Celtic territories for at least 400 years, so there was plenty of time for infiltration. Eventually there was a merging of the rituals, and beans needed to be spat in October as well as in February.
Pope Boniface IV instituted the Roman Catholic Feast of All Saints in the 7th century, and it was originally celebrated on May 13. One hundred years later, in an apparent attempt to Christianize the October rituals, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to the beginning of November. That's where it stands until today in Italy and the rest of Western Christianity. All Souls Day (Tutti Morti, all the dead) on, November 2, was started after another hundred years. But the last day of October remained the danger day, and rituals of that day have stayed pretty much the same through the centuries -- except for the beans.
Sometime in the intervening millennium, the beans have mostly changed into something else. There are still bean soups that are given to the poor in exchange for prayers for your dead ancestors. There are bean-flour cakes ("soul cakes") that are handed out for the same reason. But, mostly, there are now "bean" candies -- sugary, nutty things just made to look like beans -- that everyone eats to remind them of the dead. The candies vary from place to place and can be several different colors, but usually they are white and are called "ossa dei morti", or bones of the dead. A link to a page with "ossa dei morti" recipes and lore is listed below.
The word "Halloween" is a corruption of how early Christian English speakers referred to the evening before "Hallowmas", the Feast of All Saints. There's no way to know how those early British Christians really might have said the word, but it is important to remember that Halloween (Hallowmas Eve) has always been Christian -- neither devil worshipping of witchery -- despite attempts by neo-Satanists, and modern witch wannabes, and "New Agers" to highjack the feast. People donned devilish and other monstrous costumes only so that they could be symbolically driven out and (hopefully only symbolically) be burned in year-end bonfires (really, bone fires -- see below.) Even the original "pagan" Celtic observances had this same aspect -- driving out evil, not inviting it in.
And the Irish brought the mixture of ancient Celtic and Roman Catholic traditions to the shores of America in the mass "potato famine" migration. Soup and soul-cake begging became trick-or-treating, and the American candy conglomerates rejoiced. In recent years, Halloween parties and costuming have traveled back to Italy as a "new" October-ending party excuse. Adults took it up first, as a kind of extra Carnivale, but the kids have quickly caught on to the candy-blackmail part of Halloween, and it's spreading from the cities to the towns and to the countryside. Happy Halloween!
Halloween Traditions are on the Internet at:
The "Bones of the Dead" site is at: http://italianfood.about.com/library/weekly/aa100999.htm
For some scary stories, appropriate for the season, try http://www.themoonlitroad.com/index.html
P.S.: Bobbing for Apples? How did this tradition get attached to the American Halloween? It's only conjecture, but there was another ancient Roman October Festa honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, especially apple trees. This is taken by some as yet another "proof" that Halloween is "pagan" and therefore evil.
P.S.2: Bean spitting? As recently as the late 1960s I saw my relatives in Cosenza province spitting out black fava beans to chase away evil spirits. It wasn't Halloween, just preparation for a family party where the dead would surely be discussed. Things change slowly in some parts of Italy.
P.S.3: Bonfires = bone fires? In European countries and Latin America, where grave plots are scarce, burial space sometimes was and is rented annually, or for even shorter periods by poorer folks. If you couldn't make the payments for uncle Giovanni's plot, he might be dug up and his bones burned at the end of the year in the "bone fire". But warnings had to be given before this could be done. Just a few weeks ago, an American friend visiting the grave of a long-dead uncle at Rome's Foreigners' Cemetery -- the "Protestant Cemetery" -- in Rome (and this was the first visit by a family member in several decades) was given notice that payments were long overdue -- "pay up soon, or we dig him up".