Preserving Calabrese Traditions & Folklore in Australia
by Roy Fazzalari and Joycie Strangio
An insight into the various traditions of Calabrese culture as observed in the Calabrese-Australian community.
Each summer the annual backyard ritual of making “Conserva” (tomato sauce for pasta) is testimony to the many cultural traditions and customs, which Calabrian families have maintained since migrating to Australia.
Scratch the surface of this important annual event and you will find a range of cultural, social, and linguistic practices, which have not only endured, but in many cases have strengthened in recent years.
In most Calabrese homes in Australia you will find that the village dialect is proudly still in use, if somewhat contaminated by the infiltration many English words.
Culinary habits have survived and have been passed on to the next generation. Food preparation and preservation is still critical to the Calabrese family.
By way of Italian Radio stations hosted by their very own local paesani, the Calabrian culture is constantly exposed for all to experience.
Calabrese communities hold many religious festivals in honour of their regional patron saints.
In many parishes Mass is celebrated in Italian with the church providing not only religious but also a vital opportunity for social interaction. Weddings and funerals provide the social links for dispersed communities.
Thankfully, Calabrian migrants have maintained many traditions brought with them. In doing so, they have unwittingly contributed to the changing face of multicultural society in Australia. In spite of the hardships endured by our forefathers who left their homes and families to then be confronted with prejudice, indifference and misunderstanding, Calabrians brought to Australia natural survival skills and attitudes which assisted in their successful intergration in a foreign country. Many of those skills and attitudes endure today.
Language - Dialect
In Australia we are blessed with a policy of multi-culturalism whereby linguistic diversity is respected. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find fourth generation Calabrian/Australian children speaking the family dialect in some form or another.
The first arrivals, who may have been oblivious to community prejudices, had no choice other than to speak to their children in dialect. It was the only language they knew.
For many current second generation Calabrese it may be more natural for them to speak English in the home and as a consequence many third generation Calabrese/Australians are indebted to their grandparents for their knowledge of some form of the family dialect. Whilst having a weakened linguistic knowledge they seem to realise the value of the family dialect and its importance in maintaining fading links with their family culture.
Today, many Calabrian/Australian children will often include words and phrases chosen from their family dialect into their everyday English speech. At times it appears that a new sub-language has emerged. It is not uncommon to hear an 18-year-old Calabrian youth proudly intermix dialect words in an English sentence, for example, “capiscisti”, “mangiasti”, “ijamunindi” together with many common unquotable Calabrian profanities.
Examples of this linguistic phenomenon may be witnessed in many Australian schoolyards where Calabrian youths gather in groups and proudly play-out and show off their knowledge of the family dialect. Whilst they make fun of each other they are, in reality, performing an important function; keeping the diminishing use of the Calabrian dialect alive and well in Australian suburbia. Interestingly it is from these groups of proud Calabrian/Australians that many of our Doctors and Lawyers etc, are emerging
One of the most enduring lessons taught to Australian neighbours is that food and eating is an occasion rather than a mundane necessity. Like most Italians, Calabrians “Live to Eat”. Old traditions such as sauce making, slaughtering the pig, making olive oil to name a few, endure and continue to grow in popularity.
Look in the refrigerator or pantry of most third generation Calabrians and you will find traditional foods in abundance. Recipes for which have been brought to Australia and handed down from grandmother.
Food is also central to the many religious and secular festivals which occur in abundance in Australia each year. At the many Italian Festivals people line up to buy the zeppole made according to old village-recipes. The volunteer cooks can barely prepare them fast enough. In fact, most Calabrian regions are represented at the many Italian Festivals, each selling traditional Calabrian food such as trippa, salsiccie, lupino, etc.
Private rituals of Calabrian-Australian life continue to include the slaughtering of a pig or goat which, for many Calabrian families, is still an important necessity in Australia. Taking place in the suburban backyard, families share the cost and everyone helps in some way. Ironically this important event usually takes place on the Queen’s birthday long-weekend. For the traditional Calabrese family, this is a public holiday not to be wasted!
Many customs, once performed in the privacy of the backyard with only family and invited paesani attending, have now become totally acceptable and rather trendy. No longer is it embarrassing to make tomato sauce, sausages, wine, olive oil, or to grow your own vegetables and herbs. These are no longer peasant’s secrets to be kept hidden from the Australian neighbours who viewed us as rather odd, foreign and exotic. Rather it is seen for what it is; a sensible alternative to processed food, which places the Calabrian family firmly in control of what they eat. Today we smile privately as the Anglo’s trumpet the discovery of the goodness of the Mediterranean diet. Much do we Calabrians reminisce the days when the Anglo’s did not appreciate calamari or olive oil. Today universal demand has made these commodities far too expensive. For a long time we Calabrians could not believe our good fortune.
An annual event that has been readily accepted as an important occasion by all Calabrian generations is the making of the year’s supply of “conserva.” Ironically, in our family this event generally coincides with the nation celebrating Australia Day. This particular family tradition is one of the strongest, which endures today.
In spite of the whining, there is a wonderful and rich family atmosphere to the day. Duty and obligation has it that all those (young and old) belonging to the extended family that wish to share in the end result, must help. While there are complaints all round, there is rarely a shortage of helping hands. It is a vital family cultural event which continues to foster a sense of solidarity.
Interestingly, this family occasion can often be the ideal opportunity for the Australian born Calabrian signorina to introduce her Anglo Saxon boyfriend to a wonderful family ritual. For it is on this day that nonna can inspect the young man in the family setting before giving her important judgement and, hopefully blessing and approval.
The family matriarch usually manages the routine of the day with few wasted words. For this is not the domain of men. It is the women who carry the secrets. The men? Well nonna keeps the men and the entire family busy. The matriarch has her duties in preparing for the day: selecting and purchasing the right quality of tomatoes; washing bottles; making sure there is enough basilico-very important; and organising the bits and pieces. The men, as instructed by nonna, diligently obey every command. The children cut the tomatoes and the lucky ones fill the bottles until all the work is done and the clean-up begins.
And the Aussie son-in-law and the Aussie boyfriend?..nonna will personally put them through their tests !!
Calabrian weddings in Australia are unique. They are well-planned events. A show of wealth and success perhaps? …Without doubt !!
While its traditions may not be directly descended from the villages of Calabria, weddings in Australia have become an important cultural and social aspect of Calabrian society today. With families increasingly dispersed, a family wedding is an opportunity to re-unite the extended family as well as members of the hometown community(paesani). They are social occasions staged with expertise and much expense. For many families the most important part of the day is not necessarily the religious ceremony, but the celebration which focuses on a delicious abundance of food and much ceremony. The bridal party will often include many siblings and where possible, favourite cousins. The comare` and compare` of the wedding day will generally go on to fulfil their duties as the godparents of the future first child.
Public and communal ceremony is central to Calabrese life and this is never more evident than in the celebration of various religious festivals, church occasions, family functions and sporting fixtures. Each Calabrian locality is held together socially by a network of clubs, societies, organizations and associations. Because faith for a Calabrese is a social rather than individual preference, it manifests itself in increasingly popular religious and secular festivals.
In Australia, Calabrians, for whatever reason, are much more involved in the community of the Church parish than they were back home. Australians made no serious attempts to convert Italians/Calabrians into Protestants and so the strength of the church grew and now plays a pivotal role in bringing young and old Calabrians together. They provide a type of social welfare where everyone is brought back together to this symbolic centre of our subculture. Church and festas remain rituals even where religion has faded. They provide a cultural element of continuity. Once, when statues of patron saints were carried through parishes, the idea of pinning money to a statue horrified some anglo Australians. Today practices such as pinning money have been, in many case, modified yet the many festas draw crowds from afar. Religious festas Australia wide, so enthusiastically celebrated in particular by members of the Calabrian community, were looked upon as odd but thanks to the enduring persistence of the Calabrese most parishes acknowledge their importance and embrace them.
Whilst the younger generations can be indifferent about many family and community customs and traditions, it is with much satisfaction for most that the young have continued to join in the annual celebration of their family’s religious festa. Many Calabrese will recall as they were growing up in an Anglo-Australian culture, that the annual festa was their equivalent to the fair coming to town.
Reciting the rosary is a common practise in many local communities. The older women have a ‘roster’ of homes whereby they rotate the location of the rosary. Apart from being a religious occasion, the rosary is also inherently an important social occasion where food is shared, gossip exchanged and family stories passed on.
Mass is celebrated in Italian so that the significance and importance of ritual and symbol are driven closer to the heart and soul of the parishioners simply because they understand the language. Sermons in Italian are also powerful vehicles for social and political messages.
Discreet and persistent enquiries will reveal the existence of what may be described as the tradition of “White-Witchcraft” which is still quite prevalent in the Calabrian community in Australia. Surprisingly not only the elderly employ this service. Convention has it that it is not openly discussed and few people will claim to believe in the malocchio - curse of the evil eye or the use of natural herbal remedies.
The craft is viewed upon as a harmless optional remedy for those confronted with any form of negative force in one’s life. Be it a minor headache, a run of misfortune, a bout of the blues or any perceived negatives. Their attitude seems to be that; although one may not believe, there can be no harm in it.
The practitioners of this craft are usually always older women and it is not uncommon for Calabrians of all ages of either gender to seek out its services. Grandmothers are known to openly offer to pass on the secret chants and rituals to willing granddaughters. Lore has it that initiation can only be performed on Christmas Eve!
Illnesses are often thought of as the outward manifestation of a jinx that someone has put upon another. A neighbour with the special gift is often called upon to bring a bowl of water and olive oil, to repeat incantations, sprinkle the cursed and drive away the evil spirits. It is an almost pedestrian activity. No fuss, no bother and it often works with resounding success.
Nonna’s recipe of lemon juice and methylated spirits will cure everything from excema to arthritis. There is no need for a laxative when cod liver oil or a good dose of chicken broth will do the trick. Sore tummy? A nice cup of warm water will fix it. Rough skin? A little olive oil on the palm with a drop of lemon and milk is as good as any expensive potion. There may not be a scientific reason for these natural cures, but they often seem to work.
To this day many older Calabrese, upon receiving any compliment, will discretely make the “sign of the horns” - “fare i corni” essential to deflect the evil eye lest they be cursed! And yes, should one believe they have been cursed with the malocchio, there are a number of women known in the community whom can be called upon to lift the curse – for a small consideration of course! And yes, in today’s modern and busy Australian society this service is now even available and commonly utilised via the telephone.
No longer can the Australian-Calabrese rely on the piazza as the source of village gossip which for many is the lubricant of community life. In Australia the local Italian speaking radio stations bring news into their homes. News of Italy and more importantly local community news, as they mark a place in contemporary society for the older generations by empowering them with local news and knowledge, nostalgic old Italian music, and more importantly, a chance to voice their own ideas. Amusing as it is to hear, elderly Calabrian woman will regularly call the station and publicly speak their mind in their native Calabrian dialect. This validates who they are as they have become mainstream Australian without giving up any of their Calabrian cultural identity. Current affairs and information direct from Italy gives them a sense of place in the present and a reconnection with the past. Hence, cultural ties strengthen rather than diminish.
Many of the radio stations are mindful of the fact that a number of the older generation still yearn the music which was popular at the time of their migration. Thus it is not uncommon to hear music of the fifties and sixties being played especially for this generation.
Love of Family
Family gatherings are important to the survival of Calabrian / Italian culture. Unlike some anglo counterparts, this is not a painful experience. It is often noisy, busy and always involves bountiful proportions of food. There are no preferences or table manners to be strictly adhered to as members enjoy a plentiful supply of delicious home made food. Everybody eats, drinks and helps with the clean up afterwards. Christmas, Easter and New Year’s Day are celebrated with earnest.
Naturally, funerals hold a solemn place in Calabrian/Australian community life. As it is for weddings, Calabrians come together to celebrate the life of the deceased with much respect and reverence. To be present is important for the families as much as it is in a personal sense. There are many opportunities to give condolences from the lutto, Rosary, Mass and burial ceremonies. Loss is shared and this is often evident in the behaviour and presence of numerous mourners. Most Calabrians who originate from the same village as the deceased, to this day, feel a strong obligation and duty to attend the funeral and in fact do so in vast numbers.
Interestingly, the social customs for this solemn occasion in the Australian-Calabrian community are forever changing and evolving to suit the pressures of time in today’s modern society.
Armed with social, linguistic, cultural and religious skills and appropriate attitudes, the Calabrian migrants in Australia thankfully refused to accept their lot in life. Instead, they persist in maintaining their customs and traditions in the face of adversity and sometimes prejudice. It is their ingenuity, frugality and perseverance, which are necessary survival attributes of traditional peasants, who then became migrants and which enables them to survive and succeed in Australia today.