As an adult, I asked my mom why she did not speak to us in Italian when we were young. Her answer was that when she arrived in America at 18, she was ready to take on American ways and felt she needed to learn how to speak English. She was concerned that if she spoke to us only in Italian, she would never learn English. She did, however, teach us some Italian informally through preghiere and rime per i bambini.
Each night before sleeping, my sisters and I knelt at the side of our beds, folded our hands and said our prayers, always in the same order: Our Father, Holy Mary, Angel of God, and then our special Italian prayer that taught us our first Italian words even though we did not know what they meant at the time. It is a prayer that I have taught my children as well.
Preghiere Di Mamma Clelia
Madonna mea fammi crescere bella figlia
Senno braccia a te,
Da la saluta a papá e mamma
E a tutti quelli che mi vogliono bene.
Mamma Clara’s Prayer
Mother of mine let me grow up a good girl
Otherwise in your arms,
Give health to dad and mom
And all those who love me.
And this was the ending we always used before getting into bed:
God bless mommy and daddy and grandpa and grandma and (whoever we wanted to add here; the list could be long).
This is another version of our special prayer that I found among my mother’s things:
Madonna mie fammi crescere buono, santo e pio,
Dó le salute a mamma e papá
E tutti quelli che mi vogliono bene,
Buona notte in compagnie con Gesú e Maria e l’Angioletto mio
Mother of mine let me grow up good, holy and pious,
give health to dad and mom
and all those who love me.
Good night in the company of Jesus, Mary and my little Angel.
These next rhymes were told to us in Italian in a sing-song manner:
(in a) bowl.
Grandmother’s Bedtime Lullaby
Nonna ninna, nonna rella,
Pupettino quanto é bello,
Quanto é caro, questo figlio di mammá,
Questo figlio di papá,
Io l’ho dó alla befana
Che se l’ho tiene una settimana,
Io l’ho dó all uomo nero
Che se l’ho tiene un anno intero.
Little puppet, how he is beautiful,
How dear he is, this son of his mother,
This son of his father,
I will give him to the witch,
To keep him for a week,
I will give him to the bogeyman,
To keep him for a whole year.
“L’uomo nero” is the bogeyman. In Italian it literally translates to “the black man” because he is dressed in a long black coat with a hood and has no racist connotations. It is a character that does not harm children but takes them to a scary place and is meant to persuade the child to go to sleep or eat without fussing. A sweeter ending was found online at “Songs and Rhymes from Italy:”
Ninna nanna, ninna oh,
Questo bimbo me lo terró!
Lullaby, lullaby, eeee
I will keep this baby for me!
Clapping Game For Babies
My Nonna Nuccia would play this game with my son, David:
Batti, batti, le manine
Questa sera viene papá,
Che porta le cioccolatine
E (il nome del bambino) Davide le mangierá.
Clap, clap, little hands,
Tonight dad will come,
who brings the little chocolates
and (baby’s name) will eat them all.
“Songs and Rhymes from Italy” has numerous versions of this one, each differing slightly in dialect from the region in which it is spoken.
I do not have any grandchildren yet, but if I do, I will speak to them in Italian and play the rhyme games with them, continuing to keep this oral tradition alive for another generation!