What’s this festival called and what is the translation?

The Festa dei Morti, which means Festival of the Dead.

When is it?

2nd November

Where does Festa dei Morti take place?

Throughout Sicily – though the big organised event in honour of the festival, the Notte di Zucchero (the night of sugar), takes place in Palermo.

What happens during the Festa dei Morti celebrations?

Up until a few decades ago, Sicilian children didn’t receive gifts on Christmas morning, but rather on 2nd November – and the gifts were left by their dead relatives. On the morning of the Festival of the Dead, Sicilian children wake up and commence a treasure hunt to find what’s been left for them by their dead. Older Sicilians recall finding a pear or a chocolate, but over the years the toys have got bigger and more numerous – these days they might get a bicycle, as well as sweets hidden all over the house. The excitement isn’t only in the presents, but in finding them. Traditionally children would leave pairs of shoes outside their bedroom doors in the hope of finding them filled with sweets. Smart children set out their father’s shoes, the biggest in the house, to maximise the haul.

 

In recent years, the Festa dei Morti has been dwindling, largely because Halloween has taken hold. But now, thanks to the Sicilian actress Giusi Cataldo, the Festa dei Morti is being revived with a huge annual event called the Notte di Zucchero (the night of sugar) in Palermo’s historic centre.

What should I expect during Festa dei Morti celebrations?

The Notte di Zucchero brings the streets to life with art exhibitions, workshops, theatrical performances and storytelling. But outside of the Notte di Zucchero, the festival’s touch is light. Expect to see bakery windows full of frutta martorana (marzipan shaped and painted to look exactly like baskets of fruit), ossa dei morti (traditional Sicilian ‘bones of the dead’ biscotti), all flanked by the pupi di zucchero (‘sugar puppets’, medieval knights on horses carved from a smooth sugar paste and painted).

What shouldn't I expect from Festa dei Morti?

A huge party. While events like The Notte di Zucchero are gaining popularity, this festival is very much for families with an emphasis on children.

What can we learn from this festival?

I began the journey of writing This Party’s Dead sitting at my kitchen table after a shock bereavement had left me agoraphobic and in near-total meltdown. The way I’d been brought up to regard death with nothing but horror and disgust was probably no small factor in that reaction. I Googled “death festivals around the world” and assembled a list of seven festivals for the dead, places where they react to mortal terror by throwing a party. I read about Sicily’s Festa dei Morti with particular amazement and envy. I imagined growing up associating the dead with gifts and a sugar-fuelled treasure hunt, instead of an awkward silence, averted gazes and the obligatory muttering of ‘very sad’.

Halloween vs Festa dei Morti

It’s not surprising Halloween is sucking away all the spots in the media: Halloween is about fear, which, for the short attention spans lighthearted news spots cater to, is a better story than the point of the Festa dei Morti: love, remembering, and vanquishing the fear of death.

 

The terror of death is augmented as much by the way we talk about the dead as how we regard the possibility, or rather the certainty, that death is also coming for us. As a child, I frequently baffled grownups with the question of whether dead people are upset or angry about being dead. They didn’t seem to realise the question came from hearing them refer to dead people – not matter what the cause of death – with the prefix “poor”. Poor Jim. Poor Edna. Poor Henry VIII. Ok, that last one’s a joke – we don’t feel bad for Henry VIII for being dead, because it was long enough ago that his absence doesn’t stir up our mortal terror.

 

When discussing the treasure hunt on the Festa dei Morti, dead people are referred to as “my dead”, “your dead” – as in, “What did your dead bring you?” “My dead brought me a tricycle!” They also aren’t spoken about as entities with all their power removed, but rather as having an incredibly important role in the festivities. And while the adults know they’re really the ones buying and hiding the gifts, this is a tradition which emphasises remembering dead relatives in a way that’s joyful, instead of wasting all our focus on the sad fact of their absence.

If you could leave one thing to be remembered by, what would it be?

Make a deathwish