Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact:Jeff Matthews

© ErN 133, entry Oct. 2002      

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. (Here is an entry with more on the Longobards.)

As well, elsewhere in Italy, from Valle d’Aosta in the north to Sicily in the south, there are traditions that are said to have stuck, although 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.

But "Happy Trick or Treat Halloween" in Naples is simply more globalization of holidays.
I couldn't believe it when kids came to our door a few years ago and screamed "Dolcetto o scherzetto!" —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'm being a bit hasty in my rant.
True, 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. Yet, as noted above, there are (or at least were) eerie rituals in some places; the trappings of modern Halloween —the macabre costumes, devils, ghosts, witches and warlocks— are European in origin. They probably stem from northern invaders, the Celts, 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 Marseilles. 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 ancestors of the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish.

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 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 visit the living. That was the premise —the dead can come back for a visit. They can cause trouble, too, so it's 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.

[related item on The Witches of Benevento]         update: Halloween 2017

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