Today’s Traditions of Italian-Americans

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.

Photo by Margie MiklasNaming 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.

Photo by Margie Miklas Shrine in ItalyNot 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.

Photo by Margie MiklasAnother 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.

Fish Photo by Margie MiklasAlthough 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 Savoca cooking Photo by Margie MiklasAngela was born and raised in Cesaro,  Sicily, an inland mountainous area, the same village where my grandparents were born.

Photo by Margie MiklasAngela 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.

Sicilian Cannoli

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.

What traditions does your Italian family practice? I’d love to hear them. Please share your memories and leave a comment.

This entry was posted in Italian lifestyle and culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Today’s Traditions of Italian-Americans

  1. dollygoolsby says:

    Love this very good explanation of Italian customs.

    Like

  2. dollygoolsby says:

    I do love your blog. I wonder if you would add my blog site to your list that is on the right hand side of your blog posts? DollyTravels.com

    I would appreciate that.

    Ciao for now, Dolly

    >

    Like

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Dolly. I have just added your blog to the list! Enjoy traveling in Paris. I am there with you in spirit, thanks to your blog posts and photos!

      Like

  3. Anonymous says:

    On Christmas we gathered at my Grandmothers house where we were treated to,her home-made sausage, salad,roasted chestnuts and cherries soaked in whiskey,also loupines. Andrea Cook

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  4. tstaffaroni says:

    With my father’s side from Umbria and my mother’s side from Sicily I had sort of mixed tradition. We never did the seven fishes on either side of the family however. For us it was sausage and peppers on Christmas Eve and lasagna on Christmas Day. Every Italian wedding I have been to has include the cookies and confetti.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting stuff – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sherry says:

    Learned more new things! For all the years I lived in Southern Italy I never knew these things. Though I did experience all the seasons, holidays and events in food, I understand the reasons better now. Love your blog, Margie!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jim Hammond says:

    Margie, this was a really nice posting with great pictures. I’m not Italian but probably should have been. My best trips ever were to Italy and I’m an Italian food nut. Maybe I’ll see you at our 50th reunion next year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much Jim! I’m glad you have been able to experience the beauty if Italy and the tastiness of their food! Yes I plan on the 2016 reunion. If you hear any details, dates, etc, please share

      Like

  8. We celebrate Christmas Eve by sharing Seven Fishes with friends. A lot of work, but my favorite event of the year.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. imarancher says:

    While I am an Italiphile (sp), I am not Italian. Being Irish we are all about Saints names but my family had another little quirk. The first born girl always gets the middle name of Jean. I am Bonnie Jean, My mother was Bette Jean and I have a grandchild named Rebecca Jean. Hopefully she will carry that on. Even my sister who was not a Jean named her daughter Donna Jean.

    And Margie, I loved this little story. It went well with my morning coffee!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great blog! I too try to keep up with the traditions of my Calabrian heritage. Being an Italian-American is truly a gift 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’m Italian, born, raised and living in Milan. Northern Italian traditions are very different.

    As to the Christmas Eve dinner, it has never been a tradition in Northern Italy, where the time for celebration with food is Christmas Day lunch instead. No seafood tradition either. Christmas food is more about risotto, turkey or cockerel, ravioli or tortellini with broth. For believers, Christmas Eve is rather a time for prayer and faithful expectation and people attend Midnight Mass. When you come out of church, a band will be playing Christmas carols in the piazza and people will exchange wishes, eat a slice of panettone and drink vin brulé.

    I’ve never seen or heard of a “cookie table” at weddings. The most common thing is that extra cookies are served with the espresso coffee at the end of the dinner/lunch, besides the wedding cake, but this is the standard in many restaurants, too.

    In the North, people stopped applying the naming pattern sometime in the first half of the 20th century.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for this current update from Milano. as you’ll notice many traditions in America by Italian-Americans are somewhat different from how Italians celebrate today in Italy. Grazie

      Like

  12. Diana says:

    Love the naming tradition! I did a post on LAST names…but never even thought about first names….fabulous!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Austin says:

    This post made me very hungry. 🙂

    Like

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