The Comfort of Tradition

Italian WeddingIn 2000, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam wrote the landmark book Bowling Alone. A rare piece of academic work, Bowling Alone actually seeped into popular culture. Putnam uses an array of indicators about the social “connectedness” of Americas (including our participation in bowling leagues, believe it or not) to argue what we already know—these days, Americans are less connected to their communities and extended families. The list of factors contributing to isolation is long but includes sky-high divorce rates, geographic mobility of individuals and families, the fragmentation of extended families, and declining affiliations with communities of faith and ethnic origin, among others. Despite Putnam’s exhaustive and compelling study, I do know is that weddings provide a momentary respite for this descent into social isolation…..weddings offer a rare chance for people to physically re-connect with loved ones and, sometimes, even reach back for lost cultural traditions, even if they are small.

The other day I was having an email exchange with a bride who was marrying a fellow of Italian ancestry. She was interested in integrating “something Italian” into the wedding ceremony. Because so many traditional Italian ceremonies are intimately connected with specifically Roman Catholic services (this was an interfaith marriage, with the ceremony not conducted by a traditional clergy person), she was puzzled about what options might exist.

I did a bit of sleuthing in various books and on websites to find a cornucopia of small rituals that could be woven into any sort of wedding. For example, in Italy, little bags of almonds, known as confetti, are given to the guests after the wedding as keepsakes. The almonds, representing the sweet & bitter nature of life, should come in bags of 5 or 7 almonds, which are supposed to bring good luck. Likewise, I learned that some brides and grooms in Southern Italy break a glass at the end of the wedding day. Common wisdom says that the number of pieces that the glass shatters into represents the number of years that the couple will be happily married. And according to The Knot, the Tarantella—a stately and elegant courtship dance (which if not already, should be added to the repertoire of Dancing with the Stars required performances)—is commonly performed by the Bride and Groom at the reception. After finding wedding favors designed with beautiful Murano glass, made in Venice, I realized the list of ways that a bride could honor her groom’s Italian heritage, was limitless.

As something of a Communitarian myself, my hope is that these nods to culture during wedding planning can spark a sustained interest in family heritage. But it is nice to know that a celebration about love can, at least, open conversations about ethnic ancestry, ceremonial customs, and connections to generations past. And, on the eve of Thanksgiving, for that I am grateful.