SARONNO, Italy – One thing I know is it’s difficult to change the habits of a lifetime. I’m talking about Thanksgiving. For me, it’s hard to get into the spirit of Christmas until I’ve had Thanksgiving. But here in Italy, where they love holidays that fall on Thursday and extend into Friday and even Monday if they can get away with it, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s not that they aren’t fascinated by the idea of giving thanks for what you have, but what do they have to be thankful for they ask. For those of us looking in from the outside, you have to think they are kidding, right? They’re not.
|Thanksgiving Greeting from Saronno|
It’s not as callous an idea as you may think. Not being too happy about something is part and parcel of the Italian DNA. If you are too happy about something, no, I take that back, if you show that you are too happy about something, you risk putting a jinx – the Malocchio or Evil Eye - on the very thing you are happy about.
The Evil Eye is best described as a curse that can be triggered by something as simple as a compliment. For example, if someone tells you your baby is beautiful, beware! The fates have been tempted. You must immediately make the sign of the horn sign to protect your child from the Evil Eye.
|"Two Versions of The Horn"|
When I first moved to Italy, I was told by an Genovese lawyer that if I wanted to succeed in Italy, I would have to stop smiling so much. And not only that, but if someone asked me how I was, the answer should never be –‘great.’ A better, safer answer, he counseled, would be “in somma.” Which loosely translated means, “I’m doing the best I can but it’s a struggle.” Truth is, at that time “in somma” was closer to my reality than “great,” so I had no problem adopting the more “evil eye” proof response.
Superstition has been part of Italian life since the dawn of time. Using your fingers to make what is called in Italy “the horns” is in reality a version of a crescent moon shape which is representative of various Moon goddesses worshiped in days of old. Interestingly, the finger horn can also be a sign that your wife is cheating on you - obviously the worse curse of all - a cheating wife.
Turns out there are other things, like covering your mouth when you yawn – which I always thought we did just to be polite, are superstitions. The real reason we cover our mouths is so evil spirits don’t enter our bodies. After all, God gave Adam life by breathing into his mouth – so what’s to stop the Devil from trying the same trick? Then there is that old habit of saying Bless You, when someone sneezes.
|Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele|
That simple saying is a carry-over from the days of the Roman Empire when sneezing was a sign that you had a dreaded disease. When someone sneezed the Romans thought it best to offer up a short prayer to the Gods – “long may you live,” or “may you enjoy good health,” or a simple “Jupiter, help me,” they would say. Whichever one you chose brought the hope that Jupiter would protect those unlucky enough to be around someone who was sneezing, and hopefully expel the disease from the unfortunate person who sneezed.
|Even Locals Take a Twirl|
Here in Milan, they take the Evil Eye and other superstitions very seriously. Even those who claim to be non-believers can’t resist the Milanese tradition of twirling around three times on the bull’s nether parts, which is supposed to bring luck and ward off evil spirits. So the next time you are in Milan, make sure you visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and give it a twirl. You won’t have any problem finding the mosaic with the bull in it, there is always a crowd of people waiting to take their turn. No point in tempting fate.
So while we Americans have no problem roasting up a turkey and giving thanks for all we have, the wary Italians prefer to go about their business of living large and enjoying life and pretending they are suffering through it all. So, now that you know the rules, cross your fingers , touch wood, and make the sign of the horn because I am going to wish you all a Very Happy Thanksgiving Day.
And a note for Muzik Girl – I'm sorry I don’t know the name of the soup, but I do know quite a few people from Puglia and I’ll ask them. As soon as I have an answer for you I’ll post it on the blog.