Assimilation and the Holidays

Just to gauge the speed of assimilation, I took a tally of marriages within my extended family. First, I counted myself – happily married to a lady half-Italian.  We have one daughter who married a wonderful man who proudly claims to be “16% Italian,” the rest northern European.

In all, I have eleven nieces, nephews, and first cousins who are 100% Italian, as I am. Five of them married partners of Italian stock, three married non-Italians, and three are unmarried.

These married relatives produced 19 children – Of those, only 11 are married – 2 to partners of Italian stock and 9 to non-Italians. The odds are that the unmarried children will eventually hook up with non-Italians.

I’m sure you see the same trending in your extended families. Bottom line: Italian American “culture” has already become mostly “a state of mind.”

I notice at family gatherings, where we used to feel italianita` through slang, music, food, and topics of conversation, the only Italian tone today may be a pasta course.

On Christmas Eve, my wife and I host our blended family for the Seven Fishes. One in-law has no taste for six of the fishes and eats only shrimp cocktail.  She also takes her linguine with butter and chops it into one inch shreds to avoid twirling.  But she respects our Eve tradition.

We have considered offering alternatives to the fish supper as many other Italian American families find themselves doing, but we have decided the Fish will have no other foods before it. We’ll serve anyone tuna from a can or fish sticks, but no meat.

Many years ago, a cousin hosted the annual Seven Fishes for our all-Italian family – everybody knew what to expect, from raw bar to snails, scungilli, eel, and baccala` – and feasted happily. But one year this cousin invited an Irish American family to join our traditional event.  Unfortunately, none of the family ate fish.  My cousin felt their pain and prepared a meat alternative.  They also didn’t drink wine, so they brought a case of Budweiser with them.  The next year, the Irish family brought teenagers who were dating their son and daughter, along with two cases of beer.  My cousin essentially began hosting two Christmas Eve suppers – one for us, the other for the Irish – in two adjoining rooms.  I couldn’t deal with this arrangement anymore and we begged off the following year.

I don’t know how long we can stick to our guns, but I have this problem of comparing things. I compare the Seven Fishes to the St Patrick’s Day corned beef tradition or to the Thanksgiving turkey tradition.  Why can’t we have a tradition without compromise?  (Imagine some Passover hostess inviting me over and serving pork braciole, just to be hospitable?)   Even Columbus Day demands a traditional meal in my world.  In fact, renown chef Mary Ann Esposito developed Pasta Due Mondi* expressly for our Institute, blending ingredients from the New World and the Old.  But, our lapsed paesani around the country would sooner have corned beef & cabbage on Columbus Day than Pesto Genovese or Pasta Due Mondi.   [*The Italic Way XLI p 29]

Christmas Eve today is nothing special to millions of Italian Americans, I’m sure. And ultimately, keeping our traditions will not be up to us. Our children and grandchildren will need to contend with more of a melting pot than even we are stewing in.    Those old links that we took for granted – Italian relatives, food traditions, Italian and Italian American music, homemade feasts, and 100% Italic families – are falling by the wayside.

Mind you, we may lament the changes but nothing will stop them. As the ancient Italian poet Virgil wrote so correctly, “Love Conquers All.”  Boys and girls fall in love and we must deal with the results.  It begins at the dinner table.

I welcome your comments.

A Healthy and Prosperous New Year!   -JLM



3 thoughts on “Assimilation and the Holidays”

  1. John: you touched on many many sentiments as I read your splendid article blog. For years, I have noticed the dissimilation of Italianita” from our lives.

    I am a third generation full Italian and work with second and third generation Italians (some of them only half, a quarter, etc.).

    I am saddened to see the disappearance of our cultural experiences and noticed this many many times in my travels. Weddings are one instance, when only occasionally during dinner time they will play a Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra tune. the rest of the time, the music does not represent one iota of what Italianita’ means to me.

    If I am at work or mentioning something Italian some of the 1/2 or 1/4 breeds are totally unaware of what I mean.

    We have been relegated, as you said, to food, maybe a Sinatra or Martin tune but nothing more. Our culture is fast disappearing as we assimilate more and more and soon we will be gone forever.

    As another example, one of the individuals I work with is 100% of Italian extraction 92nd generation) but does not speak or know the language and because he married out of his ethnicity, his sons were raised only with the Italian surname but thats all. Fortunately, one of his sons married a full blooded Italian and I can converse with her about the culture but bringing it up sometimes the comment is: “That is something my Grandma did.”

    The culture is dying John and the generations to come will eventually have not ties to our roots.

    I blame the American Culture which wanted us, the Poles, Germans, etc. to assimilate and lose identity. (Although the Polish communities have been replenished due to a first generation influx from Poland to this country since they are no longer under Communist rule). Unfortunately, the Italians coming here today are more educated but are very few in number to settle in areas once dominated by us. Further, the birth rate in the old country prohibits large migrations for even happening. Such assimilation never occurred ironically with the Jews (Probably because of the religion) or the African Americans (Probably due to their race) but why did it never occur to the Hispanics?

    I can go on and on and do not know the answers but your points are very much valid and drive the daggers home to us who cherish our Italianita’.

    There still are some of us who can relate but I am afraid to say we are going like the WWII vets.

    Any further comments by others are very much appreciated as this really struck a chord with me and I apologize for the rant.

  2. My daughter and son both married non-Italians, as did I, and even when we celebrate Christmas with extended family, the menu is at least perfunctory Italian in nature. My 10-year-old grandson, who is 25% Italian, expressed the wish to me that he was “more Italian”. I told him he could be 100% Italian “in his heart” if he wished to be. I didn’t tell him there are plenty of 100% Italians who are less than 25% Italian in their heart (as we all know).

  3. Well Giovanni, it IS happening, more and more in all of our Italian American families. However, despite the fact that my own sister is married to a mixed breed of a wonderful spouse, who is 1/2 each of German and French, he has for 50 years now maintained the Italian side of the celebrations for all the holidays. And we make it work for their three children, my nieces and seven grand nieces and nephews. there are fewer, from what I see, young Italian Americans for those who are seeking spouses to marry. Therefore, the intermarriage is wide spread. We do the best we can and celebrate it with gusto and do the seven fishes and more. And we also GO to church! that appears to be a lost activity for the NONES, who have no faith. A very changed world for we “mature” Italian Americans and we live each day with fond memories of the past that carry us thru the years. it simply will never be the same!

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