USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘italian’
Folk speech
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Italian Family tradition

I asked Mae her earliest memories of traveling to Chicago to visit her extended family, she responded:

“My great- great grandma moved to the U.S. directly from Italy so obviously they had a really Italian family and they ended up living in south side Chicago. She owned chickens, and every Sunday she would go into her coop, ring a chickens neck, clean it kill it, and make pasta Bolognese using the meat.”

I then asked, “When did you first learn the recipe or heard about the story?”:

“I must have first made the Bolognese sauce in 4th grade. I know I didn’t hear the story until later because I remember in 9th grade for an art class I did an art painting about my family and I painted a chicken head on the front”


Background: Mae is a 19 year old girl raised in Westwood, CA and currently living in Los Angeles, CA. Her parents are originally from Chicago and Little Rock, and she lived in Princeton, NJ briefly as a young girl.

Context:Mae shared this story with me while we were cleaning the dishes in our apartment.

Analysis: It is incredibly easy to overlook elements of someone’s culture that affect their folkloric practices simply by never asking questions. Mae is one of my closest friends, and I had no idea that her grandma immigrated from Italy or lived in south side Chicago. Understanding where someone comes from culturally and geographically creates the opportunity to really understand more about their identity. Hearing this story about Mae’s grandmother I felt like I was seeing a new side of her and gaining a clearer understanding of the origins to her stories she tells every day. I was reminded of recipes I have learned from my family members that have truly become a part of my own identity and my family’s identity like my mom’s banana bread and my grandmother’s scalloped potatoes.


Feasts Natalae

Background: A.S. is a 22-year-old student at USC studying Occupational Therapy. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and both of her parents are professors at USC. The informant’s mother told this story to the informant multiple times, especially when describing her childhood or her favorite holiday. This was her mother’s favorite time of the year, because it was the one time that she could be all together with her family and celebrate, even though they were Jewish and the tradition revolved around a Christian holiday.

Main piece: “My mom was born in Rome but grew up in New Jersey. Her mother was Italian and she was also Jewish…which is interesting since there aren’t too many Italian Jews. Anyways, she still celebrated Christmas because her father was raised Catholic. So my grandmother would prepare a traditional Italian meal for Christmas in the house when they lived in New Jersey. It wasn’t like other Christmas dinners in the states…it was like specifically Italian. So they would have a bunch of courses, seven I think, because of the seven sacraments or something, and almost all of them included some sort of fish plate, but no meat. I think my mom told me it was called um.. oh it was called Feasts Natalae. It was traditional in Italy to have the dinner on Christmas eve but it was still called Christmas dinner I think. Each course was fish because it’s like a kind of fasting…they just don’t eat meat. My mom said this was a really special time for her because she knew her family would be together. And it wasn’t even about the holiday or religion or anything, it was about being with her family.”

Performance Context: I interviewed the informant while we were both together, sitting on a couch, in the house where she lives on west 28th Street in Los Angeles. Feasts Natalae would typically be practiced on Christmas Eve, and is a prominent tradition in Italy. This tradition would be practiced by Anna’s mom’s family every year.

My Thoughts: I think that this story is representative of the fact that each culture and each family has a different way of celebrating Christmas, both culturally and religiously. Each nationality and each individual family has a way of making the holiday special for them. There are a lots of Christmas traditions around the world that aren’t officially coming from the church, but are still important to families and have to do with Christmas.


Gesture: “Delicious”

Main Piece: “So, when an Italian loves something he or she’s eating, they…um…express satisfaction by taking their index finger [laughs] and putting it at their cheek and going like this [motions twisting of index finger on cheek and puckering lips]. And that’s supposed to show how much they think what they’re eating is delicious.”

Background: The informant noticed this gesture among family and friends eating a meal. She enjoys this gesture because it’s so unfamiliar in comparison to an American gesture of satisfaction. Instead of rubbing our bellies or smacking our lips, the informant notes, “it is mistifying why we would point to our cheeks, but also makes sense since we eat with our mouths.” This gesture is recognized as a huge compliment to whoever made the meal and is also a way of connecting with the other members of the table eating the meal.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I am somewhat familiar with the importance and value of cooking and sharing a meal in Italy; preparing the dishe(s), inviting the guests, and sharing the meal are all important components of the gathering. The informant’s comparison of an American gesture of satisfaction versus an Italian’s, touches upon the subtlty of Italian expression. Rather than a loud (perhaps rude) smacking of the lips or shameless rubbing of the stomach, the Italian gesture is more subdued. The complimentary aspect of the gesture places value on the meal and the company one shares the meal with. The gesture was informally inherited by the informant in a social context. Although she only uses it when surrounded by people who understand it or use it themselves, she remembers it as a significant piece of folklore.


Gesture: Evil Eye

Main Piece: “In Italy, my experiences…bad things happening to me meant that I watched what people did when they wanted to ward off the evil eye. A common gesture is to make this sign [index and pinky finger are raised with other fingers tucked in. Hand "pokes"or "stabs" the air].”

Background: The informant learned this gesture by watching people perform it. The informant grew up in Rome and it seemed important to the informant because Italians are typically a Catholic/Christian population, so it seemed pagan to her that the devil would be warded off by a hand gesture. The informant sees this gesture as a different way of approaching ill fortune in the absence of religion. She noticed, growing up, that Italians are very expressive with their hands, so this gesture was significant.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I find it interesting that the informant’s interpretation of this gesture was to “ward off” the evil eye. I’ve heard of the evil eye in a different context (in Israel) and it is used quite differently. In Israel, the evil eye is an object, usually a glass medallion which resembles the eye, hung in a common space (such as a home or a car) to ward off evil. The informant interprets the evil eye as what should be warded off. I find the gesture interesting as well. Its symbol and movement appear threatening, as the fingers point in the opposite direction of the individual with his/her fingers pointing outwards and moving in an abrupt, sudden way. It seems that, for this group, the way to ward off threat is to be threatening themselves. The gesture was something that was picked up by the informant. Rather than an oral medium of passing down folklore, the informant adopted the gesture in a social context of learning.


Romulus and Remus

The informant is a second year student at the University of Southern California, studying History. He is from Chicago, IL, and he lived abroad in Rome when he was younger. At USC, he is involved with student affairs and television production.

This piece is a legend regarding the founding of Rome that the informant learned while he was living there.

“So, these two twins named Romulus and Remus are born and then set adrift in a river and, which is common in these sorts of legends and such. So then they end up going into the forest and a wolf, a she-wolf, sees them and she decides that she’s going to raise them for some reason. And so they suckle at her teat, uh, is the actual language used, um, and they are essentially raised by wolves.

And then, so they grow up and they’re, they want to found a city. Right? And Romulus wants to found it on the Palatine Hill and Remus wants to found it on the Esquiline Hill, which are two completely separate hill in Rome. So what they decide to do is say, “Okay, let’s see how many birds fly over each hill, and the one with the most birds wins.” Mkay? So, basically they sit there all day with an auger. And birds start flying over these hills.

Eventually, a flock of 11 blackbirds fly over Remus’ hill. And Remus thinks that he’s won and that he’s gotten the right to build at Esquiline, or to build the city on the Esquiline. And Romulus is like, “Well, there’s still time in the day yet.” And at the last second, 12 blackbirds fly in over the Palatine Hill. So it’s decided that it be build on the Palatine Hill. And Remus is very upset about this.

So when Romulus starts doing the ceremonial task of plowing the boundaries with a plough, uh, Remus goes up to him and jumps over the line. He crosses the line, literally. And so, Romulus, incensed by this, because this is a really sacrilegious thing to do, Romulus basically beats him to death. And then Romulus becomes king of Rome.

Now, that’s what the Romans say. But then there’s also the Sienese version, which is that Remus just left in disgrace and went North and founded Siena, which they’re claiming so that they can say that they’re great. Because they were founded by Remus. So that’s that story.”


In this version of the legend, it matters very little that Remus and Romulus are set adrift at birth and raised by wolves. Aside from establishing their background, it plays no role in affecting the rest of the story. It may be that the informant is most interested in what happened after the brothers left to found the city than in what led to that point.

It’s also notable that the Sienese and the Romans tell this legend in different ways; though this legend typically refers to the birth of Rome, it makes sense that the Sienese would seek an origin story for their city as well. The informant was not aware of other Sienese legends about the birth of Siena, but it would be interesting to see how other legends might compare.

For another version of this legend, see the “Romulus and Remus” entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica online.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Romulus and Remus.” Encyclopaedia Britannica., n.d. Web. 9 Apr. 2016.

folk metaphor
Folk speech


Original Script: “Meglio tardi che mai”

Literal Translation: “Better Late than that never”

Meaning: “It’s better to do a thing later than not to do it at all”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “When I came to America, I realized how different it is…Like the driving part. Americans are so angry when they are driving! They can be so impatient. Especially during, busy time, what is it called? Oh! The rush hour. I mean you cannot go anywhere, so just chill out and listen to music in the car. This is where I thought of the saying. Because you will get there, but you might be a little late.! People need to understand that! I have seen more accidents here than all my life in Italy!”

Silvia recently came to America about three weeks ago as an intern for an Event planning company. She grew up in Parma, Italy—which is a small town in Italy. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about. The roads there are usually only one lane and even though it can get busy, people generally remain calm according to Silvia. She also said that compared to Italy, people are very reckless drivers in America.

Context of the Performance: Keeping Patience in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: When I first heard this saying, in the original Italian, and having learned Italian this semester, I knew the literal translation of the saying but not what it actually meant. In fact, I heard Silvia, murmur it when we were driving during rush hour, and that is when I conducted the interview with her.

Firstly, I believe this saying speaks volumes about the attitude Italians have. As the quote above suggests, not to stress about being on time, or to worry about things you cannot have control over. It is interesting how the translation is literally “that never” which means that there is only on never, and that it is singular. Thus, this also shows that Italians persevere in their everyday life and challenges that may come up during the day.

This saying, and the way it captures the Italian people’s attitudes, was encompassed my Silvia, again, during an event for the company we work for. During the event, Silvia kept repeating, “Meglio tardi che mai, Meglio tardi che mai, Meglio tardi che mai,” and while everyone was stressed out, Silvia kept calm and collected throughout the whole ordeal. Hence, this quote while encompassing Italian’s people way of life, it also perfectly encompasses Silvia’s personality. I can also vouch that many Italian people—specifically on the countryside, and where Silvia is coincidently from—are very much personified as being relaxed people because I had visited Italy in the past, and compared to the busy chaos of the big cities, like Verona and Venice, the countryside was very peaceful and seemingly stress-free. Perhaps, this would be a good saying for American’s to adapt to, particularly while driving. While it is not a proverb, but a saying, I believe the American people can benefit to making it a proverb, because as Silvia had mentioned, we do have a lot of car accidents precedent here.

Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech

Stress Free Life

Original Script: “Ma cosa vuoi che sia”

Literal Translation: “But what you want it would be”

Meaning: “Don’t worry about a thing that is not important”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “How do you say, I noticed, Americans can get very…stressed out…crazy…easily. Like the rush hour traffic I was telling you about! Pessimo! [very bad] And little things they cannot control. I mean your life is more important than wherever you are trying to go! If you are stressed in California, go to the beach! It’s very relaxful! But the food, come si dice [how do you say], I understand when they get mad about the food, when the order is wrong, or when it is gross tasting, because food is important in the Italian culture.”

Silvia recently came to America about three weeks ago as an intern for an Event planning company. She grew up in Parma, Italy—which is a small town in Italy. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about. Like the amount of stress Americans carry to that in Italy.

Context of the Performance: Stressing in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: In accordance with another interview I conducted with Silvia, (please see the article titled Italian…Proverb?), this Italian saying furthers the implication of the stress free environment of the Italian people. Do not worry about things that are not important, or the little things, implies that to worry about such, is a waste of energy, and not only that, but time as well.

It is also important to look at the literal translation, “but you want, it would be” suggesting that one does have control over their life, and to make the best out of it, if you look at the meaning to Italians, it would be to not stress over the small things; the things that are not important in the big picture.

Please take note of the background information Silvia had provided that was in accordance to the Italian quote. She uses stress and anger interchangeably, which makes me wonder, if in Italian they mean the same thing. So, I asked Silvia in a follow up interview and she said, “yes, they do, even though we have different words for them, they do mean about the same thing.” Which is interesting since the Italians have many different words for calm and happy (positive attitudes such as allegro, calmo, simpatico), thus this furthers the notion that Italians try their best to keep “stress” out of their lives, even by doing something simple, as Silvia had noted, like going to the beach. Additionally, she states something specifically that both Americans and Italians have in common, and which they both “stress” about—food. Food is a very prominent cultural item in both the Italian and American culture in which it not only creates a social environment but also holds roots in the past. (For example American’s Turkey on Thanksgiving and Wine or Pasta—which different regions are known for different Pastas—for the Italians).

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Liars in Italy

Original Script: “La bugie hanno le gambe corte”

Literal Translation: “Liars have short legs”

Meaning: “if you lie, you will be caught soon”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “My mother use to tell me this when I was a child. I have not heard anything like it in the English language. But in Italy…we do walk a lot…almost everywhere in our small towns…which may have something to do with it, I don’t know. But you hear this when mother’s our scolding their children, or an everyday expression when you think someone is lying”

Silvia recently came to America about three weeks ago as an intern for an Event planning company. She grew up in Parma, Italy—which is a small town in Italy. Her mother use to tell her this phrase all the time (as she noted in the background she provided), and she grew up always remembering that phrase. To this day, she tries her hardest not to lie. She has adjusted greatly to the American culture but there are still some things that she is questionable about.

Context of the Performance: Lying in the Italian Culture

Thoughts about the piece: I thought this was an interesting proverb, considering the comparison Silvia had made to the American culture in the background information she had provided. She had noticed that she does not know why Italian culture uses the term “short legs” except for the fact that they walk everywhere. This does not seem like a ridiculous claim seeing as in Europe, in general, people mostly walk. When I was in Europe, I noticed not only how much I walked but also how much everyone walked compared to that in America. Furthermore, I noticed how small there cars were, which could be correlated to the fact that most people do not use a car—seeing as America consists of big SUVS, and even the “small” cars have a decent amount of room.

Additionally, this made me question if short people, in general, were considered liars. In a follow up interview, Silvia had laughed and said that not usually, just that your legs shrink when you lie. This initiated me to compare to the common tale of Pinocchio, and while his legs do not shrink, his nose grows every time he lies. Thus it is interesting, that in both stories, there is a physical disfigurement of a person when they lie, showing their lie to the world—a marking of sorts. Hence, they are not only branded a liar but their body is branded as well.

Moreover, both stories are used to scare children into not lying, as a societies way of showing social control. So while this proverb has the obvious sentiment of not to lie, there is also the aesthetic of social control that lies within it.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Fishy Christmas

Original Script: “Okay…so…you know how traditional Americans have ham or even turkey for Christmas? My family does Fish. We get a ton of it. Shell fish, Salmon, trout, everything….We have always done it that way. The first time your mother, Cheryl, came over for Christmas…she thought we were nuts! But after she had the smoked salmon…damn…your mother’s face was like, ‘oh I need to get more of this.’ But, I do understand why some people think it is strange….when I went to school and we all talked about what we did over the holiday’s, I always talked about the fish dinner we had, and kids thought it was strange…but not to my family. Everyone helps out…I make the shrimp cocktail, my sister makes the smoked salmon, my mother cooks the lobster and crab…my brother brings some trout…hell…even your mother participates and she brings the shrimp scampi…that stuff is good. Oh…and we can’t for get the good ol’ wine. I drank that stuff when I was a kid every Christmas…and I will drink it to the day I die..haha.”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Chuck Lanzer grew up in up-state New York and currently resides in the tri-state of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York with his wife, Cheryl Lanzer. Chuck grew up in a predominantly Italian Catholic home. Every year, the family—about 20 people or so—gets together to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. Chuck says that this tradition has continued throughout his family for generations, even his great-great grandmother had participated in it. It is something he has always grown up with, and the wine, he presumes, is from his Italian heritage. The family even has a wine cellar on their ground floor.

Context of the Performance: Christmas Dinner with the Lanzer family in Upstate New York (Newburgh, New York).

Thoughts about the piece: After interviewing Charles Lanzer II, I found this tradition to be quiet interesting and did some extended research on the topic. I had question Chuck’s mother, Carol Ann, about the tradition. She had told me that Chuck’s father’s, Charles Lanzer’s, family had come from a town in Italy that was famous for its fish. This town was called “Genoa.” (For more information about Genoa, see an article by Peter Davison published in the 1999 issue of the The Atlantic Monthly titled “Italy’s Greatest Seaport).1

Here, fish was something often eaten in by the locals, after all it was, and is, one of the most notable seaports in Italy. Furthermore, Carol Ann mentioned that after immigrating to upstate New York, the family had missed their Italian town and wanted to keep some of their heritage with them. After reading this, it makes sense that Chuck’s family use fish during Christmas. It is something that holds ties to their past—to their heritage. In this case, it is particularly interesting that heritage and tradition collide. Wanting to instill their Italian heritage in their new, American life, the family had used a tradition to do it—a mode of activity to reflect their past of their ancestors in which they utilize fish. Additionally, the family also drinks wine, in which Chuck had mentioned that he drank it when he was a child. Even though not common in the Unites States—even having a law that a person may not drink until they are twenty-one—Chuck’s family still gave the children wine, because that was a common Italian tradition to do.

It is also interesting to note that the family has a kinship system in which my mother, Cheryl Lanzer, cooks in order to gain entry into the family; in order to gain acceptance from the group, Cheryl performs a ritual in making Shrimp Scampi. It is an initiation in order to gain access and recognition from the group as one of their own. This tradition is also related to aesthetics of folklore; the reason why Chuck and his family use fish in their Christmas dinner is related to their identity as Italian folk. Furthermore, while Cheryl can never be invited into their heritage, she is invited into their tradition.

Additionally, while Chuck and his family do have an emic view of why they use fish during Christmas dinner compared to those of an etic view (like Chuck’s old classmates), it is a way Chuck and his family create a link to the past and their original heritage. While Chuck and his siblings might not of necessarily known why they used fish for Christmas dinner instead of the traditional ham, they did participate in the tradition every year, which is a prominent trait of folkloric traditions. In which Chuck, his siblings, even his father and grandparents, are not necessarily from Genoa, Italy, but do perform traditions that represent their past heritage from Genoa, Italy.

1 Davison, Peter. “Italy’s Greatest Seaport.” The Atlantic 1st ser. 284.1999 (1999): 32-37. Rpt. in The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 284. N.p.: n.p., 1999. 32-37. Ser. 1. The Atlantic. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.


Early family dinners on Sundays

My informant was telling me about some customs his family in New Jersey celebrates, and he seemed particularly fond of early Sunday dinners at 2pm.

Informant: “Every Sunday you eat dinner at like 2pm, and you have like a really big dinner that someone cooks. And you always have bread at the table, salad, pasta, and your whole family is expected to be there.”

Collector: “And then you wouldn’t have dinner after that?”

Informant: “Yeah, it was really dumb, like ‘why are we eating dinner right now?’… Italians really like to cook, and when they have a guest, they always try to feed them”

When I asked the informer if he knew why his family chose to do early dinner at 2pm instead of just a regular large dinner at the “normal” dinner time around 6pm, he was unable to recall how this tradition started. My personal hypothesis is that it’s a way for the Italian side of his family to reconnect to their European roots, since many European cultures eat a large meal at around 2pm, and then dinner is typically late at night, around 10pm or so. However, a 10pm dinner would probably be too out of the ordinary for this Americanized family to handle, so they just chose to stick to an easier option, of having a large family meal at 2pm.