When our ancestors left Italy in search of opportunity, and a better life, they brought with them their Italian traditions. Today Italian-Americans respect and honor their heritage by maintaining customs learned from their parents and grandparents. Three of these well-known traditions include: the naming of children, Christmas Eve celebrations, and wedding cookie tables.
Naming of children
In Italy, there is a very specific tradition of the way children are named, dating back to the sixteenth century. It continues today, especially in the southern regions of Italy, and many Italian-Americans also carry on the custom.
The first son is given the father’s father’s name. The second son is given the mother’s father’s name. The first daughter is given the father’s mother’s name. The second daughter is given the mother’s mother’s name. Other children are often given the names of their parents, or unmarried aunts and uncles.
Not everyone chooses to follow this naming pattern. For those who do not, patron saints’ names are often used. Choices become either the patron saint of the town, or the patron saint whose feast day falls near the expected birth date of the child.This is how my family chose our names. My birthday is at the end of September, and since St Margaret’s feast day is close enough, October 17, my parents chose Margaret as my name.
Another variation of the naming process occurs when the first born child is a girl, and some parents wish to show respect by naming her after the paternal grandfather. She would be given some variation of his name, such as Giuseppa for Giuseppe or Filippa for Filippo.
One other departure from tradition occurs when the first born or second born child either died, or was not expected to survive. The name would be given to the next child born, which can become confusing for those doing genealogy research.
Christmas Eve celebrations
The Christmas Eve dinner has traditionally been celebrated with various fish dishes, usually seven but in some instances, up to 13. These could include baccala, clams, whitefish, eel, shrimp, mussels and calamari. Christmas Eve is the vigil of the feast, Christmas, so typically meat is avoided.
Although this custom originated in southern Italy, not all areas adhere to this tradition. Angela Savoca, my Sicilian friend, stated that her family has never celebrated Christmas Eve dinner with the traditional seven fishes.
Angela clarified that the mountainous inland regions do not have any fresh seafood, as do like the coastal towns and cities, where this tradition is more frequently practiced. Many Italian-Americans today prepare the vigil meal the same way their ancestors did, depending on which region of Italy they claimed as their home. So now you know why my family never practiced that tradition.
Wedding cookie tables
Food being paramount to any Italian celebration, the traditional wedding feast is the epitome of endless amounts and varieties of food, particularly the cookie table. Most other American cultures are content with the traditional wedding cake, but when you attend a traditional Italian wedding, you know that you are going to be treated to much more.
In addition to the wedding cake, there is a long table filled with plates, piled high with home-made Italian cookies. For weeks prior to a wedding, the bride’s aunts, grandmothers, and cousins get together, and bake thousands of cookies, and freeze them, to be served later, at the wedding. Usually you will find pignoli cookies, S-shaped cookies, traditional wedding balls, biscotti, pizzelles, fig cookies, and all varieties of almond flavored cookies.
In some areas, there is a tradition of a cookie dance, where the bride and groom dance, leading the guests to the cookie table, where they help themselves to cookies. There are also stories of cookie cakes, where a cake has been fashioned by layering cookies higher and higher to resemble a wedding cake. Pastel colored almonds are used with icing in between the cookies to hold them together. When a friend’s son got married several years ago in Texas, he wanted a cannoli cake. The family hand carried the shells and the filling on the plane from New Jersey, and constructed the cake for the wedding.
Italian-Americans are proud of their traditions, which revolve around the values most meaningful to them, God, family, and food.