Ras el-Am sugar dolls

Published : 18-08-2020
The town of Nabeul has a unique tradition in Tunisia: that of sugar dolls offered for the holiday of Ras al-Am. A tradition that can be found on the other side of the Mediterranean ...

Each year in Nabeul, the town and the markets brighten up in a thousand colors on the eve of the holiday of Ras al-Am, the new year in the Islamic calendar.
On the stalls, there are all kinds of small figures in colored sugar. Before being broken and eaten, they will take pride of place in homes, accompanied by sweets and nuts, in tall ceramic bowls called ‘methred’.
More often than not, it is customary to give a big doll for little girls and a cock for little boys.

These statuettes are fun for children; they were also formerly offered to the family of a fiancee.
But this tradition is very similar to that found on the other side of the Mediterranean, in nearby Sicily.

Sicilian Day of the Dead

In Sicily, in fact, these sculptures are a custom that accompanies the Feast of the Dead. A holiday not so sad as one might think, since after visiting the graves of the deceased it becomes the children’s feast.
The descendant of an old aristocratic family from Palermo described this holiday which brightened up his childhood at the very beginning of the 20th century:
“On November 2, a large popular gathering, which served as a pretext for frenzied artisanal activity, unfolded under the gardens of the Royal Palace, opposite the Villa d’Orléans. This is where the Fair of the Dead was held. It was customary to hang out as a family after visiting cemeteries, and we were no exception. Tradition dictated that all kinds of objects for children were bought there ... We had the choice between amazing statuettes, the ‘pupaccene’, which were both trinkets and confectionery. They were made of carved and very colorful sugar. The ‘pupaccene’ existed in several forms, sometimes of ancient inspiration – knights in sugar, paladins and dames –, sometimes more up-to-date – sailors, cowboys, married couples (the husband wearing a frock coat, the wife wearing a white veil).”
(Fulco di Verdura, “The Happy Summer Days”)

In Nabeul, however, neither knights nor cowboys. The dolls rather represent ‘brides’ or animals – which are reminiscent of the clay figurines modeled by the female potters of the village of Sejnane

Metamorphosis of a tradition

Nabeul is the capital of Cap Bon, the Tunisian region closest to Sicily. Many Sicilians once lived there; many others only came to fish along its coasts.
It is not surprising that customs have crossed the strait that separates these two countries.
Some historians claim that the Sicilian ‘pupaccene’ were invented at the time when the Fatimids, a dynasty of caliphs born in Tunisia, ruled the island!
It may be recalled that sugar (as well as the word for it) was introduced to Europe by the Arabs.
A fine example of the metamorphosis of traditions around the Mediterranean.
Anyway, in Tunisia, sugar is an omen of sweetness for the year to come ... This is why the Nabeulians also prepare a special couscous for this occasion topped with dates and sweets!

More about the Cap Bon region.
More about Tunisian gastronomy.

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