Customs of Italy

Marriage and Family

ImageMarriage engagements can last several years because people tend to wait to marry until they have finished their education and found employment. Marriage ceremonies traditionally followed Catholic traditions, but a growing proportion are civil ceremonies, especially in central and northern Italy. Divorce is now granted only after at least three years of legal separation.

Loyalty to and pride in the family are important values. Parents try to help their children, even when they become adults—for example, they might help them buy a home or pay for an apartment, even if it means a sacrifice for the parents. In the north, most families live as nuclear units; the average family size has significantly declined in recent decades.

In the south, families are somewhat larger, and many generations often live in the same town or house. The north-south division is also reflected by the greater freedom women have in the north in terms of jobs and social life.


An Italian breakfast is light, often consisting of a cup of coffee (warm milk for children) and biscotti (cookies), bread, or rolls. Croissants with icing or some kind of filling are also popular. Pasta is the staple of the Italian diet, served in a multitude of forms from ravioli, which are small casings filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables, to fettuccine, which are wide noodles. Pasta is accompanied by a wide range of sauces, from bolognese—containing tomatoes, lean chopped beef, pork, veal, or chicken livers—to salmon or mushroom. Italians eat fish as well as a variety of meats, including veal, ham, sausage, and salami. Cheese is also very popular. Pizzas vary in style from region to region. A typical everyday meal is three courses but, when entertaining or eating at a restaurant, it is normal to start with an appetizer, followed by a pasta course, a main fish or meat course, and dessert and cheese. Salad is often served after the main course. Italy is a major wine producer, and wine is usually served with a meal.

Good food is of great importance to Italians, and meals, particularly when guests are being entertained, are leisurely affairs. On weekends, families often spend hours over lunch. Traditionally, lunch was the main meal and families always used to eat it together. However, with more two-income families and fewer businesses closing for lunch, this tradition is disappearing, especially in large cities. Firms with more than 20 employees must provide some kind of cafeteria. Lunch is usually eaten at 1:30 or 2 pm, and the evening meal is eaten late, beginning around 7:30 pm in the north and sometimes as late as 10:30 pm in Sicily and other southern areas.


A handshake is the most common form of greeting. Female friends and friends of the opposite sex may greet each other by touching both cheeks and “kissing the air.” Male friends may embrace and slap each other on the back. Friends say Ciao (“Hi” or “Good-bye”) as an informal greeting. More formal greetings include Buon giorno (“Good day”) and Buona sera (“Good evening”). It is not unusual for people of the same gender to walk arm-in-arm in public. Personal titles are very important, but the use of first names has become much more widespread.

Italians like to socialize in their own homes as well as in cafés, bars, and restaurants. Visits to family or friends, especially on holidays and Sundays, are an important part of Italian life. Because urban schedules are becoming busier, visits in urban areas are usually planned in advance. In villages, where life is less hectic, people—particularly relatives—are more likely to drop in unannounced. When invited to dinner, it is usual to take a small gift.


ImageAn evening or Sunday afternoon stroll around the town is a well-established tradition in both rural and urban areas. On Sundays many Italians go to the countryside, or to a sports event. In summer, crowds flock to the beach. Discotheques are popular among unmarried young people, particularly on Saturday nights. Soccer is by far the most popular sport. Bicycling, auto racing, skiing, and tennis are also popular. Recently, basketball has attracted a large Italian following.

Given the country’s Roman history and its later role as the catalyst of the Renaissance, it is not surprising that the arts continue to play an important part in Italian life, from opera in Verona to the museums and galleries of Florence and Rome. Many Italians enjoy going to the cinema, although film attendance is lower now than it was in the mid-1900s, when Italian film directors such as Federico Fellini were in their prime. A wide selection of Italian and foreign films are shown. Foreign films are usually dubbed into Italian. Television is popular and an increasing number of families have video cassette recorders.

Holidays and Celebrations

Italy celebrates the New Year on 1 January. The eve of the Epiphany—the visit of the Three Magi to the Baby Jesus—on 6 January is an official holiday and is marked by visits from Befana, the Christmas witch. Befana is traditionally a kindly old witch who missed her chance to accompany the Magi; she has been searching for the Baby Jesus ever since. On the night of 5 January she slides down chimneys on her broomstick and leaves toys and candy for the children who have been good, and a lump of coal for those who have not.

Carnevale, or Carnival, is celebrated with parades and costumed festivals in many parts of Italy during the period immediately preceding Lent. The Carnival festivities in Venice are particularly famous, and celebrants come from near and far to take part. Italians celebrate Easter Sunday and Monday.

Liberation Day on 25 April commemorates Italy’s liberation in World War II. Labor Day is observed on 1 May. The Assumption, when Mary’s body is said to have been “assumed” into Heaven, is celebrated on 15 August. By this date most Italians have left the cities for the seashore or the mountains. All Saints’ Day (1 November), when all of the Catholic saints are honored, is followed by All Souls’ Day (Il Giorno dei Morti) on 2 November. On this day there is a requiem for the dead at dawn, and church bells toll. Italians pay visits to cemeteries, where they drape the graves of their loved ones with flowers, particularly chrysanthemums, and candles. The Day of the Immaculate Conception (8 December) celebrates the Roman Catholic belief that the Virgin Mary’s soul was preserved free from original sin. Christmas is celebrated on 25 December. In addition to these holidays, each city has its own patron saint and celebrates the saint’s feast day.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas