Now ghostly spirits and the entombed dead wander,
Now the shadow feeds on the nourishment that’s offered
This day they call the Feralia because they bear
Offerings to the dead: the last day to propitiate the shades.
Today is the ancient Roman festival of Feralia, when the spirits of the dead were believed to hover above their graves. To propitiate them, food and drink and little gifts were left nearby.
And if you don’t believe in spooks, I have full proof. I once left a hip flask of whiskey on a grave and – yes! It was empty the next day! The pie-eyed sexton swore he knew nothing about it, so that just shows you, doesn’t it?
And the grave must be honored. Appease your fathers’
Spirits, and bring little gifts to the tombs you built.
Their shades ask little, piety they prefer to costly
Offerings: no greedy deities haunt the Stygian depths.
A tile wreathed round with garlands offered is enough,
A scattering of meal, and a few grains of salt,
And bread soaked in wine, and loose violets:
Set them on a brick left in the middle of the path.
Not that I veto larger gifts, but these please the shades:
Add prayers and proper words to the fixed fires.
A friend of my mother’s used to take a bottle of (Irish) whiskey and pour it on her (Irish) husband’s grave every year on the anniversary of his death. This story smote my poor husband to the heart and he lamented, “Couldn’t we run it through our kidneys first and then baptize the grave?”
Since this is something akin to All Souls Day and Dios de los Muertos (and another cold day in winter), make a PAN DE MUERTO or “Bread of the Dead”. You don’t have to leave it on a loved one’s grave; indeed, after smelling this sweet, cinnamony bread baking, you’ll be hard put to share it with the living! But remember your own dear departed today, and send up prayers for the Holy Souls, that their stay in Purgatory may be lessened. To pray for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy and one that should be done often. Other ways to honor the deceased are to decorate their photos with flowers, or light a candle for each one on your family altar or at the church.
This is a yeast bread.
Cut up ¼ cup of butter into small pieces.
Separate 1 egg.
Bring ¼ cup of milk to scalding; remove from heat and stir in the pieces of butter, ¼ cup of sugar, and ½ teaspoon of salt. Allow the mixture to cool.
In a large bowl, mix 1 envelope of dry yeast with ¼ cup of warm water. Let it stand for about 5 minutes, then add the milk mixture, 1 egg, the separated egg yolk, and 2-1/3 cups of flour. Blend well.
Turn out the dough on a well-floured surface and knead for about 5 minutes or until it is smooth and velvety. Return the dough to a bowl, cover (a dish towel will do), put it in a warm place, and allow it to rise for about 1½ hours or until doubled.
When doubled, turn it out again onto a floured surface, and knead for a couple of minutes (this expels the air bubbles).
Grease a baking sheet.
Cut off a piece of dough about the size of 1/3 cup and reserve. Divide the remaining dough into 3 equal parts; roll each part into a rope about 12 inches long. Braid the ropes, pressing the ends together securely to make a wreath. Place this on the greased baking sheet.
Divide the reserved dough in half and shape each piece into a ‘bone’, by rolling the middle and leaving the ends as knobs (I put an indentation into the ends of the knobs to make them look like a femur). Cross the bones on top of the wreath. Cover the whole again lightly and allow to rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes, until puffy looking.
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Lightly beat the reserved egg white and brush it gently over the dough. Mix together 2 teaspoons of sugar and ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon, and sprinkle this over the dough, avoiding the bones. (When baked, the bones will be shiny atop the dull sugary surface of the wreath.)
Bake for about 35 minutes or until brown. Serve warm.