How Italian Traditions Work

Italian Family Customs

Religion plays a crucial role when a child is born to an Italian family. Most babies are baptized in a Roman Catholic ceremony. The parents choose a godmother and a godfather, whose duty it is to ensure that the child is raised in a proper religious manner. Many people think the godparents are the ones who will raise the child themselves if the birth parents are for some reason unable to, but such an arrangement isn't legally binding.

A traditional Italian courtship requires the permission of the bride's family before an official engagement can be made. As in much of the world, a diamond ring is worn to symbolize engagement and marriage. The wedding itself is usually held at a morning mass, followed by a day-long feast and reception. The bride and groom walk to the church together, and in some traditions they saw through a log together with a double-handled saw.


The reception features a full-course, traditional Italian meal. The courses are:

  • Aperitivo -- a drink or small appetizer.
  • Antipasto -- more appetizers such as fresh bread, bruschetta, olives or cheese.
  • Primo -- the first course, generally a pasta dish, soup or stew.
  • Secondo -- the meat course, the specifics of which are determined by regional preference.
  • Contorno -- a vegetable side dish, possibly consisting of a salad, served alongside the secondo course.
  • Formaggio e frutta -- literally, cheese and fruit.
  • Dolce -- a dessert course that can include anything sweet, including chocolates, cakes, and traditional Italian desserts like cannoli.
  • Caffè -- a post-dinner coffee break.
  • Digestivo -- a post-dinner drink of liquors, including Italian drinks like sambuca and nocino.

You may wonder how Italian families pay for these extravagant weddings and receptions. One tradition is called la borsa, and allows all the friends and family of the bride to help defray the cost. The bride carries a small satin bag that the guests place cash inside. Guests can even place cash inside in exchange for a dance with the bride.

Another key Italian wedding tradition is the tarantella, a couple's dance set to traditional Italian music. The guests form a circle around the couple and dance around them.

The traditions of Italian funerals will look familiar to many Europeans and Americans due to the influence of Catholicism. A funeral mass with last rites and a liturgy is held with an open casket, so mourners can kiss the forehead of the departed. After the mourners gather at the grave site, they attend a reception held at the family's home, while guests bring food both to comfort the grieving family and feed the numerous guests.