Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dolcetto O Scherzetto!

Dolcetto O Scherzetto!
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, October 2008)

October has always been my favorite month. The summer is officially over and autumn takes over with its cooler temperatures and intense colors. Here in Italy, the harvest season begins, and it’s the winemaking time, and that in and of itself is reason enough to love this month all the more. But my favorite thing about October, is one of the few things American that I tend to hold onto. I simply adore Halloween.

In Italy, Halloween has been receiving mixed reviews over the past few years as its popularity rises. When I first arrived on these shores almost eight years ago, there was virtually no sign of it anywhere. There might have been the occasional decorative candle in a storefront window, but other than that, the focus was on the Italian holidays “All Saint’s Day” on November first, and the “Day of the Dead” on November second. But over the past few years, Halloween has been rapidly growing in reputation, although not everyone pleased about this development.

Considered by many of my Italian friends to be “that American holiday,” Halloween is now unofficially being celebrated by many Italians all over the peninsula. As in America, children go Trick-or-Treating by dressing up in costume, knocking on doors and shouting “Dolcetto o scherzetto!”, eagerly anticipating candy and other goodies from their neighbors. For the children, Halloween is a fun, new holiday, but for many adults, it may not always be appreciated.

The first line of resistance to this freaky festival, is of course its spooky nature and its less than Catholic roots. Nearly all holidays in Italy are based on religious days of importance, but Halloween doesn’t fall into that category and is therefore eyed suspiciously by many. That initial problem, however, seems to be fading with time, and Halloween is slowly making itself known and accepted even in the tiniest villages.

Over the past couple of years, late in the afternoon on October 31st, the streets of the little town where I live suddenly becomes populated with tiny pirates and princesses carrying decorated baskets for collecting their goodies. For now, it seems the holiday is celebrated only by children, but even that appears to be changing. Some of the more daring adults are challenging the raised eyebrows of their peers, and donning fuzzy cat-ear headbands, skull and cross-bone earrings, or other subtle forms of acknowledging the celebration. I’ve yet to see an adult go all out and walk around in full costume yet, but I don’t think those days are far off. 

I’ve noticed a lot of curiosity regarding this particular holiday over the past couple of years, and have inadvertently become one of the town’s leading Halloween experts. I don’t know if I technically deserve such an honor, but it is one that I take to heart nonetheless, and do my best to answer the queries put to me. Whereas the children just love the excuse to dress up and eat candy, the adults want to know what the celebration actually represents. They find it amazing that in America, this is the holiday that rivals even Christmas. They look at me in wonder as I describe the elaborate costumes and parties I have experienced over the years. They seem relieved when I explain that it is not a Satanic celebration at all (as has been suggested by some), but rather an ancient Celtic festival celebrating the end of summer. They even seem pleased to know that the word itself, “Halloween,” actually comes from the Catholic festival known as “All Hallows Eve.” 

Whereas for now, the idea of a “Halloween Party” is still a strange one, I have to admit, there has been noticeable progress. Every year I see more and more Jack-O-Lanterns sitting on people’s doorsteps, and I find that it has an extremely magical effect on me. Seeing that warm orange glow flickering along these medieval streets, doesn’t seem at all out of place, even though it’s a very new trend. On the contrary, something about candlelight reflecting off these ancient stone walls seems more than appropriate, and I find myself taking longer evening walks this time of year just to be able to absorb as much of the atmosphere as possible.

Another of my newfound responsibilities as Halloween Ambassador, has been instructing interested initiates on the fine art of pumpkin carving, a duty that I have no qualms about fulfilling. Whereas the basic principles are the same, there is just something a little extra nice about this ritual in Italy. While sitting around the table last year with a lovely family that had invited me to teach their children how to make their own “real Jack-O-Lanterns,” there were no tricks involved, only treats. Before the carving began, we dined on handmade tagliatelle pasta, served with fresh porcini mushrooms and olive oil. After dinner we sat in front of the fireplace and began our autumnal artistic endeavors. The children and I were having a wonderful, giggly time scooping out our pumpkins while their mother lovingly roasted chestnuts over the fire. The father had disappeared down into the “cantina,” only to reappear proudly carrying a bottle of wine that he had made only a couple of weeks ago. The irresistible sweetness of this new wine was the perfect compliment to the freshly roasted chestnuts now being passed around in a large wicker basket. 

When the carving was done, we placed the Jack-O-Lanterns around the room, lit the candles inside, and as a final touch, turned off the lights to appreciate them all the more. We were all silent, taking in the beauty of that moment. After a minute or two though, one of the children said, hypnotically, “Ganzo-o-o-o…” the Italian equivalent to the American slang term “Cool!” He looked at me, and even in the dim light, I could see his eyes were sparkling. This young man was definitely a Halloween convert. 

Living here, there are many American holidays that I’ve more or less forgotten even exist. July 4th comes and goes without my even being aware of it. I know sometime in November, there are some Americans here that go out of their way to find a turkey to roast, but I’m not one of them. Halloween, however, is one holiday that I’ve never been able to forget, and now seeing it slowly being accepted here pleases me to no end. I know it has been criticized for being yet another American import. But so was the tomato…and just look at what Italy has done with that. 


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