All Souls’ Day: November 2nd

On this day the Christian Church remembers all the deceased.
A Spasso con Sara at the origins of this commemoration.


The Church has always been linked to the memory of the dead. In the Christian vision of existence, man’s destiny does not end with death. At the end of earthly life, the soul reaches the vision of God and, at the end of time, after the Last Judgment, it will rejoin its mortal remains resurrected. The faithful, therefore, pray to their loved ones who are extinct to ask for their intercession with God and to join them and the elect after death.


Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel. The Last Judgment (


Since the Middle Ages: Odilone of Cluny

The anniversary of November 2 has its roots in the tenth century, although already St. Augustine, between the fourth and fifth centuries AD, praised the custom of praying for the dead outside of their anniversaries.

In the seventh century AD, the monks devoted a full day to prayer for the dead. And Amalarius, theologian and liturgist of the age of Charlemagne (8th-9th century A.D.), already placed the memory of those who had passed away on the day after that of the Saints.

The first, however, to officially set the date of 2 November was the Benedictine abbot Saint Odilone of Cluny in 928 AD. Sources report that he was particularly devoted to the souls of Purgatory for whom he addressed all his prayers, penances and sufferings. One of his brethren, returning from the Holy Land, told him that he had been shipwrecked on the coasts of Sicily. On the island he met a hermit who told him that he had heard in a cave the voices and cries of purging souls who, together with those of the demons, cried out against Odyloon. Listened to the testimony, the abbot fixed November 2 as the commemoration of the dead and passed a law that required all the monasteries of his congregation to ring the bells with funeral tolls after vespers of November 1.


Abbot Odilone of Cluny (Credits:

Ancient roots

The liturgical celebration of the day of the deceased, dominated by the color purple, symbol of penance, expectation and pain (used, among other things, also in funerals) has, in fact, even older origins of the tenth century and the choice of the day of its recurrence, that of November 2, is not entirely random.

According to some interpretations, this date should in fact be referred to the Universal Flood which, according to Moses’ account, fell on the “seventeenth day of the second month”, to be identified with our November. The Feast of the Dead would therefore have been born to remember those people who God himself had annihilated, in order to exorcise the fear of new similar events.


Lorenzo Lotto and Giovan-Battista Capoferri. The Universal Flood. Bergamo, church of Santa Maria Maggiore (Credits:


Remarkable is the echo of the Celtic culture and, in particular, of the night of Samhain, the Celtic New Year, a celebration halfway between death and rebirth and which fell between October 31 and November 1. The customs and traditions of this feast are lost in the world of myth and legend and the rituals concerned roughly the world of the dead through divination and storytelling.


Re-enactment of the Celtic New Year (Credits:


The commemoration of the dead also took place in ancient Rome with the feast of Parentalia, a nine-day period dedicated to the celebration of the dead of the family and which began on February 13 and ended on the 21st of that month, the day of the real feast of the dead.


Mosaic of the “Memento Mori”, Pompeii Officina Coriariorum – Tannery, now in the Archaeological Museum of Naples (Credits:


The Byzantine church also celebrated all the dead. This happened, however, at a different time of the year, namely on the Saturday before the Sunday of Sessagesima (about 60 days before Easter), in a period roughly between the end of January and the month of February.

And there are many connections that can be found between the Christian recurrence and very distant worlds, such as Mexico and Central and Latin America in general (Dia de los Muertos) and even China (festival of Qingming), countries that are teeming with rituals and customs in which the souls of the dead are consoled in favor of the living.


El dia de los Muertos (Credits:


The feast of the dead between Rome and Terracina

There are many celebrations between Rome and Terracina. As mentioned in one of my last articles, in Rome, for example, the Brotherhood of Sacconi Rossi holds on this day an impressive procession that, by candlelight, runs through the Tiber Island, throws in the Tiber a wreath of flowers in memory of the “dead of the water” and ends with the blessing of bones in the underground crypt of the brotherhood.


The night procession of the Sacconi Rossi on the Tiber Island (Credits:


In Terracina, the fulcrum of the commemoration of the dead is the Church of Purgatory in the Borgo of Cipollata, consecrated to the memory of the deceased, as recalled by the inscription inside the dome: “holy and just is the thought for the dead”. After the celebration of the Holy Mass at 6 am, from the church starts a procession directly to the city cemetery (this year the procession will not be held because of the events of these days). Another mass is celebrated at the cemetery.


The celebration of November 2 at the Church of Purgatory of Terracina (Credits:


The “sweets of the dead” and the many different Italian traditions

In many parts of Italy there is a widespread belief that on 2 November the dead come to visit their loved ones who have remained alive. The journey made is long and tiring. It is therefore necessary to prepare something to eat and/or drink that allows them to refresh themselves.

And, in fact, during this time of year, in different parts of our country, the so-called “cakes of the dead” are prepared. Based on simple ingredients, such as flour, eggs and sugar, but also almonds, candied fruit, jam and chocolate, these sweets, in consistency and shape, resemble, in some cases, to bones. They adorn the tables set for the dead and are consumed almost as if to soothe the sadness and emptiness left by the disappearance of loved ones.

In Umbria they prepare the “stinchetti”, sweets in the shape of broad beans (for this reason they are also called “broad beans of the dead”); in Naples, instead, the so-called “nougat of the dead”, which, different in consistency from the Christmas nougat, is given by the boy to the family of his girlfriend; in Sicily, however, protagonists are the children. If they have behaved well, the deceased will bring gifts that they will find in the morning under the bed. These are toys, but above all sweets, such as the so-called “pupi di zuccaro”, real dolls made of sugar. And still in Sicily, they prepare the “scardellini”, biscuits made of sugar and almonds in the shape of bones, or they use to eat (as in the area of Trapani) the “martorana fruit”, colorful, and made of sugar paste. In Veneto, lovers offer their brides a bag with “dead bones” inside, biscuits of coloured short pastry, flat and oval shaped. Finally, in Liguria, “bacilli” (dried broad beans) and “balletti” (boiled chestnuts) are prepared.


The so-called “fave dei morti”, typical sweets of Umbria prepared for November 2nd (Credits:


Neapolitan nougat prepared for 2 November (Credits:


The “sugar puppets” prepared in Sicily for November 2nd (Credits:



The “martorana fruit” prepared in Sicily for November 2 (Credits:


But the “sweet of the dead” is not the only ancient Italian tradition linked to the commemoration of the dead. In some regions, for example, it is customary to leave a jar of fresh water at home so that the dead can quench their thirst; in others, it is customary to leave a lit light, a bucket of water and bread. In Rome, tradition had it that on the day of the dead a meal was eaten next to the tomb of a relative to keep him company.


In some parts of Italy it is usual to leave a lit light for each deceased at the window (Credits:

Posted by Sara Pandozzi

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