The Calabrian Corner

Calabria's Customs Live On

Previously, I alluded to my fascination with some of the idioms and expressions that were passed down to me by my Calabrian ancestors. But our ancestral culture is rich in many other aspects as well. Over the centuries, its music and its folklore have certainly made their presence felt; but there are many customs whose rural qualities link them specifically to Southern Italy. Furthermore, I have always suspected that the Calabrian psyche has been at play during the evolution of these traditions. For example, the wailing ritual that I have seen at many Calabrian funerals has always struck me as an incredible phenomenon. I mean, no one sits at home practising such a ritual in order to be prepared to perform their duty the day a member of their household dies; yet, when the time comes, the womenfolk always seem to wail and chant with a remarkable, emotion-provoking similarity. Indeed, many a stoic soul has approached the family of the deceased with the intention of lending courage and support only to find himself/herself sobbing uncontrollably moments later. In my novel, In the Twilight of the Moon, one of the characters, a youth raised in North America, has difficulty witnessing these dynamics, for the first time, at the funeral of his grandmother. Here is an excerpt:

The most difficult moment for Ma and her siblings was the moment in which the funeral director shut the lid on the coffin. A wail erupted throughout the room and my eyes, too, welled up in that instant. Somehow, while the coffin was open, nonna was still with us, unable to communicate personally, but she was there for us to look at, to touch, to kiss, to tell one another how beautiful and peaceful she looked, and so on. But once the lid came down on that coffin, all we had left was a wooden box with a stack of memories—for ever and ever.

"It's all right, Pina, she'll always be with us."

"Let her rest in peace, Renata, she lives on through the kids."

"We'll leave her bedroom just the way it is, Sofia. Her every memory will be preserved in our house."

And before we knew it we were in funeral cars on the way to the cemetery, where the hand of death would reveal more if its smug arrogance. As we walked towards the plot, the sight of the gaping hole in the ground triggered the eruption of another wail from some of our family members and relatives. I realized immediately where that pit would lead, and it would take nonna there for the rest of eternity, to be joined one day by the remaining members of our clan. One by one, nonna's relatives would reunite with her. And then it hit me. One day, I would end up in a pit just like that one. A shudder went through me and nonna suddenly seemed less important.

From an anthropological perspective, I suppose that a symbiotic two–fold purpose has been at work; namely, Calabrian customs appear to have been a means of keeping the social unit together while keeping ancient traditions alive. The Patron Saint of my ancestors' hometown, for example, is Saint Rocco. To this day, people related in some way to our ancestral Calabrian home continue to celebrate his feast day annually, regardless of which country they curently live in. Indeed, a banner with Saint Rocco's image, provided by the local chapter of paesani, is often set up at social gatherings, funerals, etc.

I also suspect that to most Calabrians, the religious aspect of our history is the common thread behind the need to sustain these traditions. Certainly, as a kid, I could not help but notice that a primary role of our Marching Band was at the forefront of Church processions. I was also aware that certain baked goods made their appearance only at Christmas and at Easter, which suggested our family's intention to honor ancient religious customs and to pass on ancestral obligations to the younger generation.

As you can see, the Calabrian mindset fascinates me and each new insight quickly leads to another. In my novel, I try to share some of these insights. At one point, I refer to a famous folk-song that touches upon several themes. I believe the song to be of Sicilian origin, but it is certainly well–known to Calabrians as well. Traditional renditions include those of Rosa Balistreri and Domenico Modugno and Otello Profazio, while even Bon Jovi has paid tribute to it. Like many of the old songs, it tells a story—of a fascination with death ("I saw a skull atop a tower; being curious, I spied upon it"), of sorrow ("she replied with great pain: 'I died without even the knell of the Church Bells'"), of love ("when I die I am going to paradise; but if I do not see you there, I will not even enter"), of loneliness ("my years have departed I know not where") and of despair ("now that I've reached my eightieth year, life calls but death replies in its place"). Check out the preceding links and I think you will agree that these efforts leave little doubt of the cultural and emotional depth of the rich customs entrusted to us by our Southern Italian fore-fathers and mothers.

Until next time ... 'ndi vidhimu' (we'll be seeing you). ... return to previous screen ...

Please check back periodically for further musings from The Calabrian Corner. Ciao for now.

Note:If you identify with my feelings on Italian families, try checking out my new ebook, In the Twilight of the Moon, which deals with Italian family dynamics, including aggression, depression, the seeking of parental approval, unrequited love, and dementia in elderly parents. It can be previewed through Amazon Kindle.