Thursday, 21 February 2013


“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” - Marcus Tullius

The Parentalia, was a Roman religious festival held in honour of the dead. The festival, which began at noon on February 13 and culminated on February 21, was a private celebration of the rites of deceased family members. It was gradually extended, however, to incorporate the dead in general. During the days of the festival, all temples were closed and no weddings could be performed. On the last day a public ceremony, the Feralia, was held, during which visits to the tombs of dead relatives occurred.

On the Feralia, ancient Romans travelled to the tombs of their ancestors (called “Manes”), taking with them offerings of wreaths, grain, salt, and bread soaked in wine, which would be left in the tomb. Violets would be scattered around and in the tombs. The wealthy families of Rome would prepare lavish public feasts at the tombs in honour of their ancestors and a means of appeasing the gods of the Underworld. The Feralia was considered a time for mourning. Marriages were banned during this time and public worship of the gods was suspended. No incense was burned on the altars and hearth fires were often left unlit.

The Feralia is a likely contender as one of the forerunners of Halloween. At midnight on the day of Feralia the heads of the Roman families would address the less pleasant ancestors and evil spirits. The Feralia rituals were intended to control these malevolent entities and force them to return to the spirit world for another year. Failure to properly observe the rites of Feralia could lead to the spirits remaining on the earth where they would appear as ghosts and bring misfortune throughout the coming year.

One ancient story tells of a time when the Feralia was ignored during wartime, causing spirits to rise from their graves and haunt the streets of Rome until proper tribute as dictated by ritual was made, which confined the spirits in their tombs once again. Once the “exorcism” of the Feralia was complete Romans could enjoy the happy family feast of Caristia on the next day, February 22nd. The similarity between Feralia-Caristia and Halloween-All Saints’ Day is striking.

The Caristia, also known as the Cara Cognatio, was an official but privately observed holiday that celebrated love of family with banqueting and gifts. Families gathered to dine together and offer food and incense to the Lares (household gods). It was a day of reconciliation when disagreements were to be set aside, but the poet Ovid observes satirically that this could be achieved only by excluding family members who caused trouble…

The Cara Cognatio remained on the calendar long after the Roman Empire had come under Christian rule. It appeared in the Chronography of 354, and the calendar of Polemius Silvius (449 AD) juxtaposed the old holiday with a feast day commemorating the burial of St. Peter and St. Paul. As a “love feast”,  the Caristia was not incompatible with Christian attitudes and some scholars have detected an influence of the Parentalia and Caristia on the Christian Agape feast, with the consumption of bread and wine at the ancestral tomb replaced by the Eucharist. In the 5th century, some Christian priests even encouraged participation in funerary meals.

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