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Popular Marriage Customs of Sicily by Giuseppe Pitre


The customs of the Sicilian people in regard to the celebration of marriages are so numerous and so strange that were I to attempt to describe them all I should furnish not only the material for a volume, but also for a series of quaint pictures. I shall not pretend to collect the most of them, but only present a few which will awaken, I trust, some interest in those who study popular traditions and the comparative history of customs and usages.

Let us begin by supposing two young people in love with each other. The parents of the young girl are aware of the fact, but have shut their eyes because the match is a good and fitting one. When, on taking her daughter to mass, the mother has noticed her blush on meeting the young man more than once, she has pretended not to notice it. At night she has heard some love-song at the door, and seen that her daughter was the first to awaken at it, but has remained oblivious of this also. She knows all, and pretends to know nothing—sees her daughter careful about her dress, often hears mentioned a name dear to her, mentions it herself with praise, and contributes without seeming to do so to increase that love which sooner or later becomes a subject of conversation to neighbors, to friends, to all. The matter is known, and it is time for the parents of the young man to go or send to the parents of the young girl to ask her hand.

Here begins the business of the future marriage. The young man's mother visits the girl's mother, and gives her to understand that they wish to make the match, and therefore would like to know whether their proposal is agreeable and what dower the girl will have. The other mother, after the usual compliments have been exchanged, either gives at once, or promises to give, a memorandum of all that she is able to bestow on her daughter as dower.

This is the most usual way of arranging a marriage, but the manner formerly varied, and still varies, in places. In Noto, in the province of Syracuse, fifty years ago the mother of the young man put under her Greek mantle the reed of a loora, and going to the house of a young girl asked her mother if she had a reed like that. If the match was acceptable, the reed was found at once: if not, there was no reed, or they could not find it, or they would look for it. In the county of Modica the mother selected the future daughter-in-law by trial. She went to one of the young girls of the neighborhood, and if she found her busy the matter was settled: if idle, she went home again, repeating three times the word abrenuntio, Sicilianized as well as possible.

The memorandum above mentioned, written, according to traditional usage, by some one for this particular occasion, is sent wrapped up in a silk handkerchief which belongs by right to the young man. As soon as the memorandum is sent and accepted the announcement of the engagement or the betrothal takes place. On this occasion the relatives of the parties are present, and at the proper moment one of the parents of the young girl announces in a solemn tone the future marriage, and makes known the time (generally it is a matter of years) which will elapse before it is celebrated. Everything is religiously accepted by the guests and the interested parties, and after congratulations have been offered a banquet or supper (technically termed trattamento, "entertainment") takes place, in which a sort of fried pastry called sfincuini plays an important part, accompanied by filberts, almonds and chestnuts. The whole is washed down by copious draughts of wine.

The manner in which the betrothal is celebrated is sometimes very curious. At Salaparuta, in the province of Trapani, the girl takes her place in the centre of the room: her future mother-in-law then enters and parts her hair, places a ring on her finger, gives her a handkerchief and kisses her. At Assaro, in the province of Catania, the young man presents his betrothed with a red ribbon, which she braids into her hair as a sign of her betrothal, and does not leave off until the wedding. This custom is observed in many places in Sicily, and is called the 'nzingata (from 'nzinga, "sign"). In the county of Modica the girl is veiled in a broad white veil, tied under the chin with a purple ribbon. This custom of the ribbon (also called 'ntrizzaturi, "head-dress") often takes the place of the formal proposal and announcement of the betrothal. In a popular song a young man in making love to a girl offers her a red ribbon, which is the same as offering her his hand. As soon as the betrothal has taken place, the fiancé must think at once about a present for his fiancée. This varies, of course, according to the ability and taste of the giver. Formerly it was a tortoise-shell comb, a silver needlecase, a silk handkerchief, ear-rings, finger-rings, gloves, etc. Now-a-days nothing is left but rings and a certain silver arrangement to support the hair, and called, like the ribbon above mentioned, 'ntrizzaturi. In Milazzo and its territory the fiancé makes a present of a small gold cross for the neck, an engagement-ring and a dish of fish.

The fiancée returns the gift, usually with under-clothing, handkerchiefs, etc. During the betrothal, while the lovers are enjoying their love, the fiancé does not let the principal festivals of the year pass without expressing his affection by suitable presents—at Easter, a piece of pastry containing an egg, or a little wax lamb; on the feast of St. Peter, keys made of pastry, with honey or confectionery or cinnamon, according to the ability of the giver. On All Souls' Day he gives candy, fruit, etc.; on St. Martin's, a kind of biscuit named after the saint; at Christmas, cakes and pastry containing dried fruit; and finally, for his fiancée's birthday, something still finer.

We have now reached the eve of the wedding, and the time has arrived for the valuation of the bride's trousseau—a ceremony known by different names in different parts of Sicily, but usually termed stima. Let us enter for a moment the house of the bride. Everything is in a pleasant state of confusion. Friends and relatives of the betrothed have been invited to the ceremony, and take part in it with an air of satisfied curiosity. Upon the large bed of the bride's mother is displayed the trousseau, sorted according to the various articles composing it, while from lines stretched across the room hang the dresses and suits of clothes. Near by are tables, chairs and chests of drawers. A woman called the stimatura ("appraiser") examines each article of the outfit and appraises its value, announcing the approximate price, sometimes publicly, sometimes secretly to the accountant. The appraisal is final, and generally in favor of the fiancée, for the value of the trousseau goes to increase the dower. Not infrequently the mother of the fiancé complains of the exaggerations of the stimatura, and disagreeable recriminations follow. Finally, the parents of the bride bestow on her a certain number of "ounces," which the stimatura announces in a solemn tone. If the parents have anything else to give their daughter in the way of money or silver, they announce it with the utmost gravity, while the fiancé, for his part, declares that he will give his wife after his death the sum of twenty or thirty ounces as a gift. This present is known at Salaparuta by the name of buon amore, at Palermo as verginista'—true pretium sanguinis which the giver does not possess, and which the wife will never receive. At this valuation, in some parts of the island, each one of the relatives offers to the parties gifts of jewelry and clothing, which are requited by similar gifts from the bride and groom.

The civil marriage precedes the religious, which, however, is more important to the people than the former: hence the evening after the civil marriage the groom goes about his business as though he were not yet married. The religious marriage, on the contrary, is a festal occasion. The hour differs according to habits and family tastes. In Salaparuta the marriage takes place before night—in Ficarazzi, before daybreak, a favorite time for those contracting a second marriage. In Palermo the wedding formerly took place late in the evening or in the night, whence there was a necessity for attendants with lighted torches. If the Sicilian Jews preferred to go in the dark to their synagogues, and considered themselves favored by King Peter when in 1338 he allowed them to go to their weddings with a single lantern, the Christians were not satisfied with four or six lights, but wanted twenty or more—an actual procession. Frederick II. in 1292 limited the number of lights to twelve only, six for each party. Now, at Palermo, the wedding takes place at any hour of the day or night, and only the poorest walk to the church: the others ride in carriages paid for by those using them at so much apiece. In the first carriage are the bride and her mother and intimate friends—in the second, the other women in the order of relationship. The groom occupies the first place in the carriages assigned to the men: then come his father, brothers and others. The bride is dressed in various ways, and her dress is called l'abitu di lu 'nguaggiu ("wedding-dress"). In Salaparuta she wears the Greek peplum, gathered under the arms; in Terrasini, a dress of blue or some other bright color; in Milazzo, a blue silk skirt with wide sleeves; in Palermo, a white dress, the tunica alba of the Romans, with a veil kept on the head by a wreath of orange-flowers. In Assaro (province of Catania) by an old baronial custom the wedding-ring is presented by a young man of noble family. Speaking of the wedding-ring, it may be noted that formerly it was carefully preserved on a table for many purposes, as at Valledolino the whole dress is kept to be used some day as a shroud.

There are some parts of the country where the entrance to the church is also a ceremony. An old tradition of Palermo, grafted on a popular tale, informs us that in certain districts esteemed somewhat rude by the inhabitants of the old capital the bride entered the church on horseback, erect and proud. In Salaparuta she enters by the lesser door of the cathedral and departs by the principal one, afterward passing beneath the belfry. In Palermo the newly-wedded pair on leaving the church enter the same carriage, and followed by relatives and friends take a drive about the city. It is on this occasion that they throw to their neighbors confectionery, which they are also accustomed to present personally. This custom is a Roman one, in spite of the fact that candy has taken the place of the nuts which the bridegroom bestowed on the children after the wedding. Outside of Palermo and other large cities the confectionery is replaced by roasted chickpeas, alone or mixed with beans, almonds, filberts, etc. On the other hand, relatives and friends as the bride and groom go by throw after them not only confectionery, but dried or roasted fruits, wheat and barley; which they call a sign of abundance. In Milazzo the simple ceremony is turned into a spectacle: when the pair come out of the church they are suddenly received by a perfect hail of confectionery thrown by their nearest relatives, from which they strive to escape by quickening their pace or running away. In Syracuse salt and spelt are thrown as a symbol of wisdom, which recalls the confarreatio of the Romans; in Assaro, salt and wheat; nuts and wheat in Modicano; in Terrasini, nuts, chestnuts, beans and sweetmeats of honey and flour; in Camporeale, wheat alone. In Avola (province of Syracuse) one of the bride's most intimate lady friends, upon the arrival of the pair, presents the bride with an apronful of orange-leaves, and tossing them in her face exclaims, congratulating her, "Contentment and sons!" and scatters orange-leaves also over the sill where the bride must pass. Sometimes she breaks at her feet two eggs—a truly Oriental symbol of fruitfulness. In the county of Modica wine is sprinkled before the door and the bottle broken: when the married pair have entered, the husband is offered a spoonful of honey, of which he takes half and gives the rest to his wife. There gifts of sweetmeats, dried fruits, etc. are given to the guests. In Avola a spoonful of honeyed almonds is presented to each of the lady-guests—in Marineo (province of Palermo) and in Prizzi clear honey and a sip or two of water.

The house of the wedded pair is ornamented with flowers, as we learn from the popular Sicilian song: "Flowers of roses: the bride when she returns from the church finds the house adorned with flowers." The marriage pro verbo de præsenti in faciem ecclesiæ is termed 'nguaggiàrisi (and hence the dress above mentioned, l'abitu di lu 'nguaggiu), but the contracting parties are not yet man and wife; and to become so it is necessary to undergo another religious ceremony, which consists in hearing mass and kneeling before the altar holding a lighted wax candle while the priest bestows on them the benediction pro sponso et sponsa. The old legal grants (concessi) to young girls who married could not, nor can they now, be claimed without this ceremony; and the bride does not enter into possession of the legacy which she has acquired until she shows to the proper person the certificate of her parish priest that she has been married and espoused ('nguaggiatu e sposatu). The latter ceremony may take place within a year after the marriage. Widows, according to the Roman ritual approved by Pope Paul V., were not formerly, nor are they now, ever espoused: nevertheless, in the seventeenth century there were many examples of widows blessed a second time in the parish church of St. Hippolytus in Palermo.

We are face to face with a newly-married couple in the midst of people who have a good breeding of their own; and we, who measure our words and are ashamed to eat our soup with a wooden spoon, must enter their cottage and take part in the poor but sincere, joyful and cordial festival of the evening. Let us betake ourselves for a short time to Trapani, and look in on one of those modest houses during a wedding-night.

When the bride and groom return from the church they find at the house of the former a drink prepared from the milk of almonds and some small cakes. While at table the groom leaves his wife a moment to go to his father's house, and returns when the meal is half finished. He remains with her until midnight, when he takes her to his mother's, where there is a new celebration, similar to the one that has already taken place at the bride's mother's. The hour at which the groom goes for the bride is so scrupulously observed that any delay would be a grave cause of complaint, and perhaps of quarrels. The first day of the celebration is called the "festival of the bride" (fistinu di la zita), and the guests are all selected by the bride's mother. The second day is called the "festival of the groom" (fistinu di lu zitu), and the guests are all the friends of the groom. This ceremonial is, however, not so fine as that called "of the bride," di lu macadàru. The bride, elegantly dressed, is seated beneath a mirror to receive the congratulations of her friends. At her right and left are placed seats for relatives and friends, arranged according to certain traditional laws which no one ever thinks of violating. The right side is reserved for the relatives of the groom; and if any one is prevented by ill-health from attending the festival, the seat belonging to him is either left vacant, or some friend is sent to occupy it, or a pomegranate is placed in it, or it is turned upside down. We may note, in passing, that the women alone are allowed to be seated in the circle: the men, of every age and rank, remain standing. This custom, and especially the position assumed by the bride at that time, has given rise to the proverbial expression of comparison: Pari la zita di lu macadàru, which is said of a woman in gala-dress.

Let us now pass to other parts of the island and share the nuptial-banquet. Everywhere great quantities of macaroni or of fried fish are prepared, and the guests eat and drink to repletion. Even the most miserly are liberal on this occasion, and a proverb advises one to attend the weddings of the avaricious: A li nozzi di l'avaru trovaticci. The bride and groom, as can be easily imagined, have their heads full of other things than macaroni and fried fish. At Borghetto baked beans and pease are served not only to the bridal-party, but also to the others, to whom, during the banquet, it is the custom to send a dish of maccarruna di zitu—a dish in use also in Modica until within fifty years. In Assaro there are the accustomed sweetmeats, the cakes of honey and flour, and roast pease and almonds. At the banquet, where usually these things are not lacking, they begin with macaroni, which in Milazzo is poured out on a napkin, with cheese grated over it. Then follow sausages or roast meat. At the nuptial-banquet of the peasants of Modica a dish is placed on the table intended to receive the gifts of the guests for the bride: one gives money, another gold; one a ring, another a dollar; nor do those who come last wish to be outdone by the first. At the end of the banquet come the toasts, more or less lively and witty.

After the banquet follows the ball, which at Favaratta is held eight days after the wedding. The orchestra consists of two or three violins, which play the whole evening, or afternoon if the marriage took place in the daytime. The répertoire is that of the people, and embraces the dances known as the fasòla, the tarantella, the tarascùri, the 'nglisina, the capona, the chiovu, etc. In some of the towns in the province of Palermo it is the groom who engages the musicians and conducts them to the house. In Modica they dance the ciovu (the chiovu above mentioned) to the accompaniment not only of violins, but also of tambourines, etc. The groom opens the ball, holding his hat in his hand and making a profound bow to the bride, who rises with alacrity and begins to dance with all her might. The groom makes another bow and sits down again, and the bride, dancing alone, makes a turn round the room and selects a partner from the guests, who in turn choose a woman, and so on in graceful alternation.

In general, in large cities, there is no one who calls out the figures at the ball: the musicians play what they please, unless they are asked to change or continue a tune that has tired or pleased any one of the guests. The dancing is without any rule or order: nevertheless, there is some regularity in its execution, especially in the pantomime that accompanies it. The bride and groom dance their share: the first one with whom the bride dances is the groom, who permits her to dance with others.

An interesting subject in the history of the Sicilian people would be this ball after the nuptial-banquet if it could be illustrated in all the varieties of ancient and modern customs. Buonfiglio, the historian of Messina, has left us in his larger work an account of these customs two centuries and a half ago. The peasants, he says, have not abandoned the ancient custom of dancing in a crowd and in a circle to the sound of the lyre and flute, although these have been changed for the songs of the musicians; and they dance with the handkerchief, being extremely jealous of allowing the hands of their wives to be touched. So also with the collection of the presents from the relatives and guests in profusion; and this takes place after the groom has offered them something to eat three times, on which account the ovens are filled with meat, with kettles of rice cooked in milk, the wine constantly going the rounds.

In Milazzo the dance "threatens the existence of the bride," to cite an historian of the place. Here, as elsewhere, the groom has a patron, a gentleman to whom he lends his services, and by whom he is rewarded, not always generously. At the ball the bride knows that if the patron or other gentleman of the city dance with her, he will leave a silver piece in her hand; and if her partner is of her own rank, it will not remain empty. So she summons up all the strength of her limbs and spends hours and hours in dancing; for dancing with the new bride that evening is an occasion for boasting.

However rich the popular songs of Sicily are, they are very poor in nuptial-songs. Among the many thousand that have seen the light the following, from Cianciana and Casteltermini, is characteristic, because peculiar to the evening of the wedding: "Come and sing this evening to the bride and groom. Oh what joy! what delight! (You, O wife!) hold the seat of power: when the sun appears you rise. There are pleasant sights, with dress of gold and all embroidered. This song is sung to the bride and groom. Good-day! long life and health!" The following song, from Borghetto, is a greeting to the pair on their return from the church: "Long live in health the bride and groom! What a beautiful and fortunate marriage! Let the mind be firm and the heart constant. And so we come to the happy day. I would that my words were as sweet as those of a song, and my lute well tuned! A hundred years I would sing new songs. Long live love and marriage!" This other song, from Palermo, a variant of one already published, is also an expression of good wishes for the pair: "Health to this excellent pair! What a fine and gallant wedding! The bridegroom seems like a resplendent sun, and the bride like a Greek from the Levant. How many obstacles there have been! The stars of heaven go before. Now the bride and groom are happy: the diamond is set in gold."

At the ball the singing is done alternately by some of the guests. The favorite song in the cities is that of the class called arie—in the country, canzoni. The three songs above cited are those which are heard on such occasions.

Song, dance and music alternate, and are prolonged for hours, until the guests are tired out and prepare to leave the bride and groom, who are already sleepy.

Let the reader accompany the pair to their abode. The door is open, the room lighted, the bed prepared: some sighs and laments are heard among the bystanders. It is the mother, the married sisters (young girls do not accompany to her home the sister who marries), who are grieved at seeing their sister leave her home and become another's, uncertain of the lot that will be hers in the future. An old custom requires the bride to be undressed and put to bed by her mother-in-law. In lack of the mother-in-law the right belongs to the oldest sister-in-law. Woe to whoever dares to transgress this custom! Grave quarrels would arise, and even worse. I have myself been present when a family having wished to do as they pleased and not adhere to custom, blows and wounds followed, and the bride and groom were obliged to spend the night in jail.

The first visits paid to the newly-married pair are by their mothers, who hasten to congratulate them. These are followed later by friends, who go to make the bon lirata.

The bride remains at home a week to receive the visits of relatives, friends and acquaintances who either did or did not share in the wedding-festivities. After this time she leaves the house solemnly for the first time to go and hear mass, high mass being ordinarily preferred. The white dress which in some localities constitutes the wedding-dress, in others is the one worn on the first occasion of leaving the house and in returning the visits of the guests.

The last act of this drama or comedy of life is a journey on which the husband must take his wife within a year after their marriage. In the marriage-contract, written or verbal, there is a clause by which the husband assumes the obligation of taking his wife within the year to such and such a festival of some town more or less remote—the farther away the more important to the contracting parties and their relatives. Where no contract is made the custom is enough, the "word"—which, as the proverb says, "is more than the contract"—is sufficient. In Piana dei Greci, an Albanian colony of Sicily, the husband obliges himself to take his wife a journey in honor of St. Rosalia on the 4th of September to the sanctuary of Monte Pellegrino in Palermo. In many of the villages of the Conca d'oro ("the golden shell," the plain of Palermo) the husband binds himself to take his wife to the festino of St. Rosalia in Palermo, the 13th-15th of July; and this is an obligation that involves much expense, because the statue of Charles V. in the Piazza Bologni (Palermo) says, according to the people, "Palermu un saccu tantu!" The husband of Noto was accustomed, and perhaps still is, to take his wife to the festival of St. Venera in Avola.

The wife of Monte Erice (province of Trapani) by a very old custom should be taken, the first time she leaves the house, on an excursion out of Erice—the longer the better for the reputation of her husband. The one who is worth anything will take her to the sanctuary of St. Vito lo Capo or to the festival of the Madonna of Trapani in the middle of August: the worthless husband will take her a short distance from Erice, as, for example, to the church of the Capuchins or to the neighborhood delle Ficàri. Here are four proverbs which refer to these marriage-journeys: "The beautiful bride the first time goes to the Annunciation;" "Who has a fine husband goes the first time to St. Vito;" "Who has a mean husband goes the first time to the Capuchins;" "Who has a worthless husband goes the first time to the Ficàri."

Not every season is propitious for weddings. From ancient times the months of May and August have been deemed unlucky, and no one would marry during these months, mindful of the proverb, "The bride of May will not enjoy her marriage;" and the other, "The bride of August, the torrent will carry her away." Instead of these months, February, the Carnival, April, June and September are preferred. This last month is recommended in another proverb: "In September tender marriages are made." Likewise two days of the week are avoided for weddings—Tuesday, and especially Friday—it being a common saying that on Friday and Tuesday one should not marry or set out on a journey. Friday is a fatal day, on which one would believe he ran a certain danger not only in marrying, but also in beginning any work. On the other hand, Sunday is a lucky day, on which marriages always turn out according to the wishes of the parties.

These are not all the superstitious beliefs relating to marriage, which extend so far as to ordain that if, for example, the bride or one of the company slips, or the ring falls in the house, or one of the candles on the altar takes fire or goes out, something unlucky is to be expected, as these are bad omens; that if two sisters are married the same evening, the younger must suffer; finally, that marriages between relatives always turn out badly.

In addition, it must not be believed that a marriage can be made, or is made, with any one without due regard being had to the relations and spirit of the family of the bride or groom. The intimate, unwritten history of Sicily and the Sicilians is full of facts that show how between natives of this town and that, of this ward and that, and between the partisans of different factions, marriages cannot, and ought not, and will not, be made. Municipal and country contentions kept many parts of Sicily in such enmity that they quarrelled even about the thing most sacred to Sicilians—religion. It was not enough that hatred grew up between the natives of two different but neighboring localities: it was often born and perpetuated "between those whom one wall and one fosse shut in," and assumed considerable proportions. Thus we see as far back as the fifteenth century the inhabitants of a certain "fifth" (Palermo was divided into five wards) so hostile to those of another ward that the intervention of the senate was necessary in order to obtain from King Alfonso (in 1448) supplementary laws to obviate the evil. In like manner the members of different confraternities are often unfriendly. In Modica it is a rare thing for a man devoted to St. George to marry a woman devoted to St. Peter. An excellent young lady of Syracuse, devoted to St. Philip and engaged to a distinguished young man of the same city who was a member of the confraternity of the Holy Ghost, a few days before the wedding broke her engagement because on visiting her betrothed, who was ill, she found hanging above his head a picture of the Holy Ghost, which she tore down and broke to pieces in anger and scorn.

Men engaged on the sea do not marry into families employed on the land. The sailors consider themselves, and are, better and milder than other classes, as is shown by the criminal cases and the words and phrases which they use (especially those of the Kalsa of Palermo). Then there are the social differences, which are an obstacle to many marriages. We do not speak of the large cities, where certain prejudices are more or less overlooked; but in the smaller and less populous towns there are distinctions and sub-distinctions, so that he is fortunate who does not lose himself in that labyrinth. The gentleman (galantuomo, who is also called cappeddu or cavaleri) forms the highest caste, and is above the master (maestro), who in turn must not be confounded with the countryman (villano), the lowest grade in the social scale. Among the countrymen of Modica a shepherd who lives on his own property is above a reduced massarotto (who is a countryman proprietor of lands), and yet the massarotto would refuse him for a son-in-law: the mechanic would not be accepted by a family of drivers, nor these by another the head of which is the keeper of swine or of cattle. The husbandman who can prune the vines is above the one who can only till the ground; the cowherd looks down on the one who guards the oxen; the last named scorns the keeper of calves; the one who keeps sheep deems himself noble in comparison with the one who guards goats; and so with other most minute distinctions. When a countryman woos a young girl of a different rank, he hopes to overcome the difficulties in his way by choosing a matchmaker from among the foremost men of his native place, but the matchmaker will inevitably receive the answer, "The young man is honest, laborious, he owns a vineyard and land, he possesses all the qualities, but—he is not of my rank."

Giuseppe Pitrè.