I Grandi Matrimoni, Southern Italian Style

I Grandi Matrimoni, Southern Italian Style I Grandi Matrimoni, Southern Italian Style

When my Italian friends saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” they shrugged and said, “Yeah, what’s the big deal?” The movie wasn’t an exaggeration of their matrimonial experiences here in Southern Italy. If anything, the portrayal was a bit sedate from what they’re used to.  
Having lived in my ancestral region of Basilicata for five years now, we’ve been invited to a number of weddings. They are always grand affairs, to say the least, with plenty of pomp, an overload of food and plenty of dancing to make it a riot of fun. Here’s a look at a normal southern wedding, as we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

It Takes a Village
Living in a small town means most people are related to each other in some way or have been connected since birth. That means the guest list includes pretty much the whole town, otherwise someone is bound to be offended.  The bride, sometimes accompanied by the groom but more often with a sister or friend, hand-carries the invitations from house to house about a month before the nuptials. She then goes around for the attendance responses, though “modern brides” sometimes put their cell numbers on the invites and request a text message RSVP.

The Serenata
The fun begins on the eve of the wedding when the groom rounds up his musical friends in the piazza. After fortifying themselves at the bar for a while, they start off down the street, playing as they stroll to the bride’s home. When they arrive, they serenade the fair lady, with the groom asking for her hand in marriage. The father of the bride often plays it up by yelling down that the groom isn’t worthy, sometimes even throwing a bucket of water for better effect. In the end, of course, the bride joins her suitor in the street, they kiss and dance, and food is served (this is Italy, there is always food involved!)

Going to the Chapel
About a half-hour before the wedding is to begin, the bride’s family and friends arrive at her home to accompany her to the church. The merry group walks from the house to the church behind the bride and her attendants, with the whole village looking on admiringly, to find the groom and his side waiting in front of the church. Nobody enters the chiesa until the sposa arrives, then they all follow the couple inside for the wedding Mass. The newlyweds kiss and walk out into the piazza amidst a deluge of rice that has been spiked with pennies, a throw-back to the days when the wealthy would throw money at the gathered crowd in generosity. Then there are plenty of photos while the guests mill about in the piazza with a prosecco. When the couple is ready, everyone forms a caravan to go to the reception.

Si Mangia!
After a receiving line where the guests congratulate the couple and their parents, the feast begins! It starts with aperitivi and antipasti, often outdoors in a garden setting. Then the group moves into the reception hall where the opulently decorated room awaits with a full squad of jacketed servers lined up to start bringing out the perfectly plated food. A printed menu on the table guides diners through the meal so they can appropriately take or refuse second helpings based on how much still has to come out. At least two primi piatti are served, delicately dressed pasta or seafood-stuffed ravioli, for example.
Music plays between courses to give diners a chance to get up and groove it down, to shed a few calories before the next plate appears. Two main courses, meat or fish (or one of each), accompanied by vegetables are gratefully received, followed by more dancing. Wine flows abundantly to wash it all down.

How Sweet It is
The cake isn’t just a cake, it’s a choreographed dessert presentation set to music and laser lights. Rolling tables are skillfully waltzed around the room in an elaborate show, coming to rest in the middle of the hall, beckoning guests to plunder the tables in a sweet free-for-all. The cutting of the cake is an extravagant display, often outside near a fountain, also set to carefully selected music and followed by a burst of fireworks. Then the pieces are distributed among the guests. Huge vases of colorful confetti are placed around the hall for everyone to partake of Italy’s candied almond wedding tradition.  
Guests usually sit down to the wedding feast at around 2 P.M. finishing about 9 P.M. Digestivi liqueurs and caffe’ are poured and then the party begins!

A band or DJ cranks it up a notch and the party begins with a variety of music styles and dances to satisfy everyone. The perennially popular folk dances draw big crowds to the floor to swirl and twirl to the accordion music, the traditional celebration dances in these parts. Pop songs bring line dancers who know all the right moves, while slow dances let couples snuggle. Of course, the bridal couple dances in front of the crowd accompanied by a spotlight, and inevitably “YMCA” comes on to empty the seats and shake up the place. Hours of dancing doesn’t slow the crowd down any, even the older folks keep pace and boogey on.  
Despite the huge meal, after a few hours of dancing, more fortification is needed and so out comes a porchetta or a round of pizzas, to keep the party going into the wee hours. People start to trickle out, and the bridal couple gives them a gift (a bomboniere) in thanks for their presence. Fireworks complete the party and send guests home in a last reverie of pomp and pageantry.

The Poor Bride!
The evening doesn’t end there for the bride and groom, however. They don’t get to go off and enjoy wedding bliss quite yet. A group of friends and family will show up at their new home in the middle of the night and insist that the bride cook a plate of pasta! Not that they should be hungry after all that food, but they are putting the bride to the test and giving the groom “an out” just in case she can’t cook, he is told to flee now before the marriage is consummated! We’ve never heard of any couple actually breaking it off, but this is an enduring tradition that most brides continue to carry on in good humor.

Happily Ever After
And so it goes, the traditional wedding, with food and fun and the entire community participating, and then getting the joy of watching the couple go on their path, expand their horizons, start their families and keep the village alive!
Valerie Fortney-Schneider is a freelance writer and tourism specialist who grew up in northern Ohio. She resides in her ancestral region of Basilicata with her husband, where she is a writer, travel planner and genealogy researcher helping other Italian-Americans connect to their roots in southern Italy. See her websites My Bella Basilicata (http://www.mybellabasilicata.com) and My Bella Italy. www.mybellaitaly.net