The Magic of Halloween: History, Myth and Roman Traditions

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Although Halloween is an imported tradition, the colorful vibrancy and chaotic energy of this holiday is fits well with the dynamic warmth and hospitality of Rome.   Halloween has experienced a rapid increase in popularity over the past couple of years—and you can be sure that Romans have found their own unique way of expressing it!

Surely enough, Roman Halloween holds true to all the familiar traditions: carving pumpkins, wearing costumes on the October 31st, and trick-or-treating of all, including adolescents and adults.  It’s no longer so unusual to see large festive groups of masked Romans wandering around the city, joking and having a good time with each other and passersby.

It was only starting in the early 1990s that celebrating Halloween became a successful trend, such that many places (hotels, clubs, etc.) began arranging themed nights prior to Halloween and parties on the actual day itself.

Detail of Gisleni’s grave in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome (Found on Pinterest via Joyce Leung)

Halloween comes on the heels of the established November 1st Catholic holiday: All Saints Day.  And, of course, Romans love taking advantage of an additional reason to celebrate Halloween, given its historical connection.   So, don’t be surprised to see colorful masks and the flickering orange flames of lit carved pumpkins, decorating the landscape of the Historical Centre.  Starting right after dinner, hordes of little children, young and old, will find themselves on many doorsteps, even in condominiums—so, it is best to have a bag full of candy or pranks to share once you hear:  “Trick or Treat!”

The tradition of trick or treat, however, is far from new to Italy.  In fact, there is a significant number of similar celebrations to be found in southern Italy, particularly in Calabria, Puglia and Sicily. The Christian tradition of commemorating the dead began in the early Christian communities in Rome, where Christians would take to streets and ask for a tasty (sweet) gift called “pane d’anima” (soul’s bread or bread of the soul) or “pane dei morti” (bread of the dead).  Most offerings were either in the form of a sweet treat or prayers to drive away curses.

Rome, 1929. Image found via Pinterest (Charlotte Leurquin)

Still, some studies have linked Halloween with more ancient Roman festivals, particularly festivals dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of fruitful abundance in ancient Roman religion and myth.  Pomona was responsible for providing protection during the month of September, the period when fruit ripens.

Others speculate that the tradition is better linked to the Parentalia or dies parentales (“ancestral days”), a ritual conducted by individual families to celebrate their ancestors, who were believed to wander among the living during this period.  This celebration, however, was held in February, ending on the 21st of the month known as the Feralia or “the feast of the dead.”

Late October in Rome, with cooler days and colder nights, is a time when Romans light fireplaces to soothingly warm their homes and welcome the festivals, regardless of origins, that signal the closing of another year, festivals such as Halloween.

So, don your best mask and costume if you are visiting the Eternal City during this time period, join a group old or newly-made friends and walk around the city on the 31st! Don’t be spooked by the thousand eyes of the Colosseum or the shadows that may cross the Forums; instead head over to the Piazza della Rotonda and visit the Pantheon, go trick-or-treating through Trastevere, and see how Rome, in its cultural inclusiveness, continues to embody its role as caput mundi.

 

Original Article by Samir Hassan

(Translated & Edited Diedré Blake)

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