I laughed recently when I heard the president of the Campania region, the area surrounding Naples, condemning Halloween. Vincenzo De Luca called it: “the most stupid party in the world, meant for the most stupid people”.
He might have overreacted a bit, but I couldn’t agree more. I grew up trick or treating, dressing up as a ghost, or a witch on a broomstick, back when I was at high school in the US. Cinnamon-flavoured pies shaped as pumpkins were our classroom treat. Even the teachers stuck on fake warts.
But my parents were annoyed to see it springing up on this side of the Atlantic. Halloween is not an Italian celebration, nor does it have anything to do with our culture, traditions and religion. My gran used to say it’s a product of Anglo-Saxon colonisation and consumerism. That’s the problem – it’s precisely because it’s foreign that some Italians consider it cool.
This year my friend Natasha told me her kids drove her mad with costume requests. “They wanted to take part in Halloween and forced me to sew them a ghost costume by taking a bed blanket and cutting open three holes for the eyes and nose,” she said. “I smudged red lipstick all around the cloth, to fake blood stains. They also asked for pumpkin lanterns and skull-shaped cookies.”
It’s annoying to be saddled with such a demanding tradition, not to mention one that’s a bit creepy. Hotels, restaurants and bars organised Halloween-themed soirées with a dark, spooky decor and music. But I don’t like it. I’ve always been scared of zombies, vampires and demons lurking in graveyards.
The Italian festivities that now find themselves in competition with this new plague of zombies are All Saints’ Day (Ognissanti), celebrated on November 1st to remember the saints and martyrs of Catholicism, and Il Giorno dei Morti o dei Defunti on November 2nd (the Day of the Dead, alias All Souls’ Day) to commemorate the deceased loved ones.
At this time of year, families visit the graves of their relatives – but they only do it on these days, as Italians are superstitious and tend to avoid burial places. For Italians, the graveyard is considered off limits, much more so than for Brits, or Americans. These places are accessible only during funerals, moments of prayer, or during the week of All Saints and All Souls days. When Italians do enter a churchyard it is customary for Italian men, particularly southern ones, to do all sorts of superstitious gestures to ward off evil. This can include, somewhat startlingly, scratching their genitals.
So the days around “Halloween” also happen to be those that Italians regard as the most acceptable time to visit tombstones. We honour our dead with prayers, flowers and lit candles. But it’s no spooky time and we don’t embrace any of the culture or celebration of death that Halloween seems to imply. We cry but also rejoice: in the Italian mind, dead loved ones are in heaven waiting for their families. It’s a celebration of rebirth, and the certainty that we’ll meet again.
Some Italians enjoy Halloween and sure, it can be fun. But it will always run headlong into Italian Catholicism. You don’t need to be a member of the Inquisition to know that a belief in wicked spirits, in be-headed sorceresses flying on broomsticks and blood-sucking vampires is not a part of Catholic teaching. For many Italians, and in other nations across Europe’s Catholic south, Halloween is nothing but northern, Celtic, Anglo Saxon paganism.
Ah, comes the objection, but the Ancient Romans celebrated a sort of whacky Halloween. They would leave an empty space at the table, so that the spirit of an ancestor could join them for a meal. Well, yes – but all those pagan rituals came to an end long ago. We may be the descendents of the Ancient Romans, but we inherited none of their religion, or spiritual beliefs. Those all came from elsewhere.
Halloween night is when the barrier between the spiritual and physical world is believed to come down. But for Italians, that boundary remains firmly in place, and we like it that way. That’s why our graveyards, with a few exceptions, are located outside city centres – out of sight.