There is nothing that melts my heart more than the thought of love; I’m a sucker for it, a cento per cento “hopeless romantic.” When there is love, you can’t help but admit that there is some type of mysterious magic in the air. And of course, what better place to experience this so-called magic than the most romantic country itself, internationally recognized, the love capital of the world! A bit stereotypical or cliche? Maybe. But the more I come to think of it, there is this type of passion or obsession that Italians project. There is a love for life, for language and culture. There is love for family and friends, and there is a love for being Italian. There is love for a perfect beach day, a coffee at the bar, or a nice cold Perroni. We can’t forget about the love for food; it’s no wonder Dean Martin sings and compares love to the sight of a pizza pie! Love is passion and expression: there is kissing, hugging, sharing, and celebrating. And lastly, there is the ultimate one of them all: a love for tradition! But whatever it may be, I attest to the former statement as being true: love, quite frankly, is everywhere.
One day this past October I sat down, crowded around the table with my best friend Allison and her zia, a Roman woman, so eloquent in nature, warm, loving, admirable, and not to mention beautiful. It’s hard not to want her as my zia, too. After lunch, we chatted in classic Italian style. One story led to the next, and we transitioned to a topic that is like music to my ears, love, but more specifically, weddings; a friend of ours had just celebrated an engagement. Allison turned to her zia “Velia, you probably were the most beautiful bride, my nonna always talks about your wedding day like it was only yesterday.” And in sync, we quickly turn to one another, asking the same question “Velia, do you happen to have your wedding book?” we say with giddiness in our voices. She looks at us both with a smirk, “I’ll go check…” but the funny thing is, she didn’t even need to check, because she knew exactly where it was. In a moment’s time, she walks in, with a custom-made leathered-chest, undoing the clasps one by one, pulling out a book almost too big to hold let alone carry. And there we had it, we began to take a trip down memory lane, page by page. Reminiscing, Velia admits with nostalgia in her voice, “there is something so special about weddings, but Italian weddings, i matrimoni italiani, now that’s a different story.”
She is right. Like most Italian things, it’s sometimes hard to put into words what makes them so special. It could be the feeling or a sensory experience, or the perfect balance between simplicity and extravagance, effortless to the exact contrary, effortful. I guess the simplest, most straightforward answer could be “well, it’s Italian after all, that’s why it’s special.” But there is one aspect of i matrimoni italiani I have become so fascinated by: it all comes down to the traditions. These traditions are ones deeply ingrained in the town, region, even country, passed down from generation to generation. For the Italian people, it can be associated with identity, history, and belonging, a feeling of togetherness. Traditions reinforce the family, the main unit of everything. They are things done over and over again that bring meaning and celebration. Traditions are a way to create beautiful memories and what better way to savor the moment than to incorporate them on the happiest day of our lives, the wedding day.
First comes La Serenata, or the serenade. A tradition that became popular in central and southern Italy from the second-post war period. This sweet gesture, performed the night before the wedding, was first seen as a way to demonstrate. In front of everyone, the commitment the groom would promise the next day, the ultimate “yes,” through singing songs and bringing flowers to his bride-to-be. Today some may think of la serenata as outdated, but the tradition lives on, even with the changing of times. My first and only serenade experience was in a small village in the south. Being there, in a crowd full of people, the groom and wedding party were singing, clapping, and cheering as the emotional bride, caught by surprise, peered outside from her childhood window. It almost felt like a movie, a scene I had probably watched in middle school, back then saying to myself, “in no way is this reality”. And here I was, years later, rolling my eyes again, but this time at myself. In front of me was a mix of excitement, smiles, and even some tears, the melody of each song and notes from the guitar flowing through you. I could feel the emotions from the soon-to-be bride and groom to family and friends pulling everyone closer. Eyes looking upward, beaming with excitement for the next chapter to begin. My eyes too were bright.
Do fairytales exist? I was the first to admit, yes, they certainly do. That night, I replayed the scene over and over in my head, one I hope I would never ever forget, But one foot before the other, there was still all of tomorrow! I knew I was in for a real treat.
Typically, the ceremony and festivities are held on a Saturday or Sunday, as a Friday can be considered bad luck, add this to the lengthy list of Italian superstitions. First, no Italian event is complete without a glance towards fashion. Each item worn by guests was bought with intention, from head to toe, silk clutches to new leather-soled shoes, ultimately fabulous, as Velia describes. But no guest would be caught dead in white, a color traditionally reserved for the bride. Her dress is made from precious Italian fabrics, like silk, lace, or satin, and constructed using Italian tailoring methods: extravagant, elegant, princess-like. For the men, a navy fitted-suite and a white shirt and matching navy tie. Less is more because, as it turns out, this creates a perfect balance between bride and groom. Sitting in the church, moments before, I remember the silence that filled the room, time passing ever so slowly. But as soon as those big wooden doors began to creak open, all eyes turned to her.
Her walk down the aisle was an emotional one: her father and her linked arm in arm, as the two gracefully made their way forward, the lace veil trailing behind, brushing the ceramic floor. There were smiles, happy tears, and chills racing down my spine, as well as everyone else’s. The groom gasped for air at the first sight of the love of his life, as the father slowly passed her off, and the two came nose to nose. Then came the exchanging of rings, a symbol of the bond between bride and groom, representing their love, faithfulness, and commitment to each other, as another wave of emotion passed over the crowd. The wedding band, typically gold ones for both that are simplistic in nature but equally as beautiful, are called ‘fede’: also meaning faith. The ring is usually worn on the left hand: inherited once again from the Romans, as they believed the left ring finger was connected to the heart by a special vein called ‘vena amoris’, aka the vein of love. Che romantico! At the end of the ceremony, guests anxiously gather, with fists full of rice (which symbolizes fertility and prosperity) ready to greet the newly wedded couple by launching the beads into the air as they make their way out the doors!
And of course, we save the best for last: the party. There are some other customs spread throughout the reception, like the flinging of the bouquet to single women attending the wedding. Whoever catches it knows cupid is lingering in the air as it has been said that they’re the next one to marry. But Velia reminds us that throughout the night, eating is one of the biggest events (surprised?) and that providing so much food is a sign of love, happiness, and above all respect to guests. There are cocktails and antipasti served while awaiting the couple’s arrival, and then a menu that seems at least 1 km long, full of more options than that of your favorite local trattoria’s menu. From wine and fish to risotto or ravioli, and let’s not forget the dessert. Your eyes are definitely too big for your stomach that evening. But don’t think for a second that cutting the cake, made of three, four, even five-tiers, is a sign that the feasting has concluded.
Between the dancing, and there is a lot of it, celebrating, drinking (a little too much), and eating, around midnight comes a favorite of mine, one that I love maybe more for its explanation over taste: La spaghettata di mezzanotte which literally translates into “the midnight spaghetti.” The idea and ritual behind this simple yet revitalizing dish is that around midnight, when tiredness and fatigue starts to kick in, a plate of simple spaghetti is capable of revitalizing the entire evening. And just like that, the event, which would have lasted a lifetime, somehow is almost over. Moments before guests slowly trickle out, with belly’s full and hearts happy, la bomboniera, a traditional party favor, typically sugar-coated almonds (always in odd numbers for good luck!) is handed to you by the bride and groom, in a nice handcrafted box or a traditionally decorated cloth. This small gift could never possibly express the million “grazies” for being one of the many to celebrate, helping to fuel the traditions that live on, but at least it’s a start!
Italian Wedding Traditions By Region
- Qualcosa di blu: The need for the bride to wear something blue was born because in the 800’s, especially in Sicily, the bride wore a baby blue colored gown instead of traditional white as the color symbolizes love, purity and fidelity.
- Sleeping with the dress: A tradition figuratively speaking! Specifically Sicilian weddings, the dress was never allowed to stay in the same house as the bride, hence the dress “sleeping with the bride.” The dress is typically kept by one of the women of the family until the big day.
- Il bouquet della sposa: a very beautiful, and rather lengthy, ritual around the bride’s bouquet, one that incorporates the entire inner-family circle. The parents of the bride are the ones who initially present the bouquet to their daughter before leaving home. The bride then gifts her bouquet to her soon-to-be mother-in-law, symbolizing her gratitude towards her. Finally, the groom is the last one to give the bride a gift as an engaged-woman, a fresh bouquet to accompany her at the altar.
- Rosemary: Incorporating rosemary is said to bring good luck. Branches of rosemary can be added to the bouquets, and even incorporated in the groom’s buttonhole or jacket pocket. Rosemary’s woodsy fragrance is also a beautiful reminder of the smells of places like Tuscany.
- Left foot first: Some stories reveal that if both spouses leave their home to walk to the ceremony, they should always do so walking left foot first. This is seen as a symbol of being humble and equal, when starting their next chapter of life together.
- Taglio della cravatta: This tradition literally translates to “the cutting of the tie” and is one of the most peculiar I’ve come across! During the ceremony, the groom’s tie is cut into multiple, tiny pieces by male friends of the couple, and then auctioned off for money.
Throughout the Country
- Il tavolo della confettata: “I Confetti” in Italy, or sugar-coated almonds, are used for almost every type of celebration, especially weddings; there is no wedding without them! There is the “final confetti”, an entire table designated to display various types. It’s fun to note that some Italians may say to a couple “when are we eating your confettis?” meaning, when are you getting married
Wedding Anniversaries: the 25th and 50th wedding anniversaries in Italy are important moments that are celebrated, typically accompanied with vow renewals at the church, rings, big meals, bomboniera and confetti
- The 25th anniversary is called nozze d’argento and in this case guests are given silver confetti
- The 50th anniversary is called nozze d’oro and in this case guests are given gold confetti