Why is Italy so special?
For centuries the place we call Italy was made up of small countries characterised by different traditions and customs that became unified only in the second half of the 19th century by Giuseppe Garibaldi (1861). Today the country has a population of 60 million and is composed of 20 regions which feature diverse dialects and accents even though the people share common values, traditions and beliefs. Here is a brief overview which is certainly not exhaustive given the fact this topic involves a myriad of cultural concepts and variables.
Italian values and norms
One of the most prominent Italian values is without doubt family. They are usually larger in the south and considerably smaller in the centre and the northern parts of the peninsula. It is common for Italians to come together for Sunday lunch when usually the women cook and serve guided by Nonna, whilst the men sit at their table chatting and smoking away.
What is a traditional Italian family?
Senior members are to be respected and hold a place of power with Nonnas playing a matriarchal role and they are regarded by the young members as a source of wisdom. It is also Nonna who usually holds the privilege of choosing the menu for holiday celebrations such as Christmas and other occasions, however, it is very common to invite the family out for lunch when celebrating religious status such as first communion, confirmation, weddings and so on.
Most parents still financially support their children during University and if needed they help them even after they get married. It is common for Italian parents to build house extensions for the kids to live in once they marry, if that is not feasible they usually buy a property nearby as mamma wants to be present in their daily life and usually helps with the new born and baby sitting in general.
Children spend more time with their grandparents than their working parents as the nanny culture is not wide-spread, especially in the South where it is mostly family who look after the kids.
The bond between mother and son is extremely powerful and can jeopardise the relationship between her son and his spouse as the mother in law tend to interfere in the couple’s decisions and is quite judgmental of her daughter in law.
The male is raised to be cocco di mamma (mum’s favourite) she exonerates him from house chores such as cleaning and cooking which are up to females to manage for life. As a matter of fact, it is common practise for Italians to live at their parents’ home, if they don’t get married, with mamma serving her son even if he is forty years of age.
Males have in general more freedom when it comes to socialising, whilst teenager and young females have to obey to strict rules dictated typically by the father or a senior member of the family such as Nonna.
A family in Italy is for life; members typically look after each other with parents trying to preserve their material possessions for their children to inherit; however, the saying “parenti serpenti” is widely used; it translates into relatives are snakes referring to poisonous relationships which lead to several family sagas.
Linguistically speaking, it is worth noticing that the noun parents is a false friend of parenti (relatives) and translates in Italian into genitori.
Italian values and belief
The dominant religion in Italy is Roman Catholicism; this is not surprising given that the Vatican City is located in the heart of Rome and that it is the residence of the Pope. The Vatican is a State on its own and its residents and working people benefit from exclusive tax reliefs and discounts on goods.
What are some Italian beliefs?
Roman Catholics and other Christians make up 80% of the population of Italy, although only one third of those are practising Catholics. The other 20% of the population, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, is made of Muslims, Agnostic s and Atheists.
Families generally gather for religious occasions such as baptisms, first communions, confirmations and weddings. The invitation is typically extended to a large number of relatives invited to enjoy a luscious lunch or dinner which takes the whole day or evening as it consists of three starters, two main pasta dishes and one or two main dishes, two side dishes, sorbet, cake, fruits, coffee and amaro (a digestive liquor).
A fun fact is Italians like to dress up to go to Church on a Sunday and secretly criticise each other‘s outfits. The priest is highly regarded by the senior members of the family and might be invited to celebrate the religious occasions after he has officiated at the functions.
Italian Values and Traditions
Italian traditions are mostly linked to religion, though a few pagan ones are also included in the Italian Holiday Calendar. Moreover, each city and town has a local religious festivity. During celebrations the patron Saint statue is carried by believers and taken from one church to another, on their shoulders, during a folkloristic procession.
This is what the national holiday calendar looks like:
1st of January – Many Italians take the first day of the year off to sleep in, relax after a long night of revelling. Restaurants and shops are mostly closed.
6th of January – The Epiphany
Marked by the popular tradition of la befana, an old witch on a broomstick who brings children candies and coal (black-coloured sugar candies). In theory, good children are supposed to receive candies and the naughty ones coal. In reality, the calza, a long sock left hanging from the chimney or placed on the table the night before, contains both candies and coal as children are fascinated by the latter only available during this festivity.
In Rome this tradition is celebrated in piazza Navona with a fun fair loved by all children.
14th of February – Valentine’s Day
Dates back to the Roman Empire, but today is the lovers’ celebration; couples exchange presents and dine out. Interestingly, a man’s gift to his partner has to include red roses, at least in early stages of the relationship.
Carnevale, but these dates depend on which dates Easter falls on, is usually celebrated in February everywhere in the country with destinations such as Venice and Viareggio in Tuscany being the most popular among tourists. Children dress up in their favourite character and equipped with coriandoli, confetti in English, and striscioline (flat coloured bundles of paper) go along with their parents to watch the folkloristic carnival floats.
Carnival is not only a festival for children; adults get into their fancy dresses and party too. Typical sweets made for the carnival are frappe and castagnole, fried sweet dough coated with sugar.
8th March – Festa delle donne – International women’s day
It is the tradition to give yellow mimosa flowers to women on this day, and other benefits that women also enjoy on this day include free entrance to national museums and attractions. Women usually gather with friends over dinner at a restaurant, sometimes jokingly inviting male waiters to strip.
Easter takes place either in March or April based on the Gregorian calendar and it is the second most important religious festival after Christmas. Italian families usually gather to have breakfast together and the children are allowed to open their chocolate eggs, which they do with great excitement about the surprise they will find inside.
The most popular brand of chocolate eggs with the kids is Kinder Surprise, made by Ferrero. Families also gather for lunch consisting of tortellini in broth, lamb and colomba, a sweet bread made with candied fruits and shaped like a dove bird, whilst at dinner everybody is allowed to spend time with their friends following the popular saying that rhymes “Natale con i tuoi, a Pasqua con chi vuoi” translating into English as Christmas with your parents, Easter with whoever you wish to spend it with.
1st of May marks the Labour Day celebrated in Rome with a huge free concert where Italian and foreign singers perform. Most people regard it as a left-wing political festival.
2nd of June – Festa della Repubblica
Which marks the date of the unification of Italy is celebrated with a patriotic military parade in Rome. It is no longer compulsory for young males to go through military service training in Italy.
15th of August – Ferragosto
This one is not a religious festival. Ferragosto originates from Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ rest) established by the emperor Augustus, and was celebrated together with other festivals in the month of August, to rest after several long weeks of hard work in the agricultural season. Today, Ferragosto is the only holiday in August, however, the majority of companies shut for a week.
1st of November marks the day of all the saints in Italian Ognissanti so it is a celebration of all saints.
8th of December L’immacolata Concenzione
This religious holiday marks the beginning of the Christmas season when the Christmas tree and the presepe (nativity scene) are set up. This is the day the Virgin Mary was born without the stain of the original sin, according to the church.
Christmas holidays 25th and 26th of December
Christmas is the Italian families’ favourite celebration as they gather in large numbers and enjoy banquets of delicious food from lunch to dinner. La vigilia’s dinner on the 24th of December dinner consists of fish only and it’s the night when children get their presents from Santa or simply get to unwrap them at midnight.
On Christmas day families get together again to enjoy lasagne, meatballs in tomato sauce, beef and pork steaks and more. The typical sweet treats of the season are panettone sweet bread with candied fruits, pandoro, plain sweet bread covered by powdered sugar and torrone nougat with the traditional ones being made of honey, almonds, sugar and egg whites.
The 26th is Santo Stefano and once again families get together enjoying the left-overs.During these holidays Italians like to play cards and tombola which is a game similar to bingo.
31st of December Capodanno – New Year’s Eve
Is certainly the night of parties with youngsters having dinner with their families or their friends al cenone di capodanno, and then heading out to dance all night. At 10 seconds to midnight people start the countdown with a bottle of bubbly ready to be open.
The tradition says the person hit by the cork will be lucky throughout the year and eating lenticchie (lentils) e cotechino (an Italian pork dish) is thought to bring one an abundance of money. Capodanno is usually a holiday which is planned well in advance and it is an occasion in which fireworks are still widely used.
To wish a happy new year, you can say “Buon anno” and to reply to someone wishing you a happy new year you can say “grazie, anche a te”, which means thanks, to you too.
Italian values and customs
To a foreign person who doesn’t speak Italian, the Italian language sounds jolly and entertaining assuming Italians are informal and always up for a joke. The truth is, Italians are much more formal than thought and there are protocols to follow if one wants to fit into society.
Let’s consider the language itself; in Italian we have a formal and an informal way to address to somebody with Lei (formal) and tu (informal). We use the formal when speaking to someone older than us who is not family, at work especially with superiors and in the academic world when speaking to teachers and university professors; only if invited to do otherwise can we address them informally.
Particularly, in the academic field students always address their teachers with their title: maestro/a (primary school), professore/essa secondary school and University.
Titles are extremely important in all industries and must be used followed by the surname of the person you are addressing; for instance avvocato Muzzolon (a lawyer whose last name is Muzzolon), ingegnere (engineer), architetto (architect), dottore (doctor in medicine), and so on.
Everyone who doesn’t have a specific profession takes on the title of Dottore (m) and Dottoressa (f) for instance Dottoressa in lingue, female Doctor in languages, once they have earned their university degree.
Formal greetings have to be used for the same reasons explained above which in a way is the opposite of the world-wide view that Italians use the informal greeting of “ciao” most of the time.
Click here for more information about: How to address people in Italian?
Here are some greetings you can use, together with the times when you can use them.
From the morning up until past lunch, you can say Buongiorno (good morning), and to say good evening you would say buonasera (good evening). Please note though that people may respond to buonasera with buongiorno if it is early afternoon and there is plenty of day light.
When introducing yourself, a firm handshake is expected as this indicates confidence, determination and an interest in meeting the person in question. When leaving, arrivederci or arrivederla is used instead of ciao. In an informal environment some Italians can kiss you on both cheeks regardless of the gender when introducing themselves and it is also the greeting when meeting your friends.
Italian values and attitudes
Italian mentality varies from North to South and it might be perceived as provincial in several cases which are beyond the scope of this post.
How do you dress in Italy?
Appearance is a common significant denominator for Italians, as a matter of fact, how you dress can point out your social status, your family’s background and your education level. Indeed, the concept of “bella figura” (good impression) is of utter importance to Italians and it doesn’t only apply to the way you dress but the way you talk and behave (manners!); that is why first impressions are long lasting and difficult to change.
Fashion is extremely present in Italian life, especially when it comes to designer labels. Italians are obsessed with looking good and dressing well: they like to keep fit and go to the gym in winter to get the perfect body ready for summer; it not unusual for men to follow diets given by nutritionists.
Women always wear makeup and colour matching clothes and wouldn’t dream to go to the local supermarket without being presentable. Keeping up the Italian style is so vital that it can cause Italians with little or moderate financial means to struggle with debts or need to have their parents inject money into their bank accounts irrespective of their age.
On the bright side, they look good! Obviously, this is the popular mentality and does not reflect every single Italian as in most cases non si può “fare di tutta l’erba un fascio” (you cannot put all grass in the same bundle), in English “do not put everyone in the same basket”, meaning do not generalise.
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