Family Traditions – The Celebration of “Il Giorno dei Morti”

I first met my Italian cousins when I was 8 months old.

I first met my Italian cousins when I was 8 months old.

I took my first transatlantic flight at eight months. The next at a little over two years. Fourteen more over the next sixteen years.

At eighteen years old, I have visited Italy sixteen times. My dad—born, raised, and educated in Italy—still has all of his family across the ocean. Thus, when I was younger (and could afford the time off of school), we would make yearly family trips back to his hometown to see my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Summers spent in Italy with my father’s family are some of my fondest childhood memories. Playing on the playground rides at the “parco gioco”; sampling pastries after long, mid-afternoon lunches; visiting the outdoor market every morning to buy fresh fruits and vegetables with my aunt; playing imaginary games and singing songs in my fragmented Italian with my older cousins…

With that being said, it isn’t the nicest town. The suffocating heat and persistent mosquitoes are seasonal hazards, but the town itself is a little rundown and not very clean. Visiting now, I see lots of things I didn’t when I was younger. But my perception of the town remains the same: wholly positive.

Now, the town isn’t the source of my happiness; rather, my associations with it are. An overarching sense of family permeates all of my memories of Italy. And if I had to pinpoint one lesson or grander idea that I have learned from visiting Italy, it is the importance of family.

My heart and chest want to (figuratively, not literally) explode as I remember my childhood and the endless love I was given and taught to give. I may not have loved the restricted range of motion that lengthy, lengthy hugs provided, but I remember how loved—no matter how awkwardly—I felt. My memories are so warm because I identify time spent in Italy with time spent with family.

Fittingly, one of the Italian traditions my family continues in the United States is the celebration of the Day of the Dead—“I Morti” or “Il  Giorno dei Morti” in Italian—when we remember family members who have passed away and celebrate their lives. However, as this article on All Souls Day in Sicily explains, “the day is not only a solemn affair and the remembrance of the deceased can turn into a celebratory occasion in certain regions.” (Though my family is from Puglia, the article describes many similar traditions.)

In this video, I interview my dad about our traditions and the importance of this holiday.

YouTube messed up the credits but this is what the ending is supposed to say:

Researched and Edited by Giulia Curcelli
Interview Conducted by Giulia Curcelli
Photographs courtesy of Felice and Jill Curcelli
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by Claudio Arrau
Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (second movement)
Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 (first movement)

How to Make Grano Cotto

As my dad discusses above, eating grano cotto is one of our primary ways of celebrating I Morti. We only make it for a short season every year, and I practically inhale it. (This is honestly one of the things that I’m most going to miss when I move across the country for college in three weeks. Luckily I’ve already started making plans with my parents for them to mail me a batch in November.)

2 cups wheat berries (uncooked)

1 cup semisweet chocolate, chopped

1 cup citron, chopped (Avoid Safeway citron if possible. It doesn’t taste right and is way too strong for the recipe. Some Italian grocery stores carry citron already chopped.)

1 cup pomegranate seeds (though, in my opinion, the more the better)

1 cup walnuts, chopped

Vin Cotto to taste, if available

Soak the wheat berries in water for a few hours before cooking.

To cook the grain, heat 3 to 4 quarts of water in a pot until boiling, then pour in the wheat berries. Stir occasionally and cook for about an hour at medium-low temperature. Let cool for a few hours or overnight.

Mix four cups of cooked grain, walnuts, pomegranate, citron, and chocolate in a large bowl.

If you can, pour a couple teaspoons of vin cotto on top and mix before eating, because the vin cotto makes this dish what it is.

Vin cotto, which translates literally to “cooked wine,” is made from wine must, which is skimmed off the top of the crushed grapes when making wine. In my dad’s region of Italy, many families buy the must from local wineries and cook it down into a syrup. (Whenever we come home from a trip, we bring back a couple bottles.) It’s about the consistency of corn syrup (a little runnier). Flavor-wise, the closest comparison I can think of is the sweetened wine-liquid in which poached pears are made.

grano cotto


How do you remember relatives of yours who have passed away? What traditions do you use to preserve their memory? Are there certain things that you do to remind you of certain people?

I, for example, think about one of my great-grandfathers every time I eat a crab salad sandwich or a milkshake (a tradition we used to do together as a family) or whenever I see a bird of paradise flower (he liked to garden). My other great-grandfather I think about whenever I give high-fives. These were my memories as a little kid.

How do you remember family members who have died?


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