Reflections on Growing up Italian :: Celebrating Italian-American Heritage Month


October is Italian-American Heritage Month. As a proud Italian-American, I will take any excuse to celebrate my heritage. This month, as I’ve celebrated in my own little ways, I’ve also reflected on what it was like growing up Italian-American and what I want to teach my children about their Italian-American heritage.

I come from a very large Italian-American family. On both my mother’s and my father’s sides, my great-grandparents came over to the United States from Italy. So, I am 100% Italian-American. 

We grew up celebrating a lot of Italian traditions in my family. Every Sunday (and I do mean EVERY Sunday) was dinner at my grandparents’ house. My grandparents had seven children and fourteen grandchildren. Add spouses to that and that’s a LOT of people in one little house. Sundays were loud and crazy, but they were full of family, love, and tradition, and I wouldn’t trade those days for anything. To Italians, family is everything, and spending time together is one way we honor that. 

Birthdays, graduations, christenings, and more were all cause for family gatherings and celebration full of traditions. Holidays were always teeming with Italian tradition as well. Meals were multiple courses long and Catholic mass was a must. We spent every holiday together, and loved every moment of it.

My sister, me, and our cousin at grandma’s house

Each holiday had it’s own special traditions. We’d never have less than five different types of pie for Thanksgiving. Christmas Eve consisted of the traditional Italian seven course meal of the fishes, Midnight Mass, then a trip to my great aunt and uncle’s house for more family time and a meal of sausages and sides at 2 a.m. New Year’s Eve meant gathering at my aunt and uncle’s house and having a big sleep over, then waking up together on New Year’s Day. We’d even celebrate Halloween together many years because it’s my cousin’s birthday. We’d gather for his birthday party and then go trick-or-treating together. 

As I said above, family is everything to Italians. I’m not sure where the saying “blood is thicker than water” originated from, but I can tell you that Italian families probably take it more seriously than others. I’m not joking when I tell you that three of my cousins told my husband when we were dating that if he hurt me, he’d have to deal with them. And they meant it! Our family is just that close. We grew up together. We saw each other at least once a week, sometimes more. 

My mom and some of my aunts and uncles

Now that I live far away from my family, things have changed. We aren’t able to attend all of the celebrations and family gatherings anymore. But we call the family for each gathering and talk with everyone there, and we travel to see our family twice a year, every year. 

I do my best to continue what traditions I can at home with my husband and children. Our oldest son has a very Italian first name (Giovanni). We had intended for our second son to have an Italian name as well (Santino), but ended up giving him quite a different name in the end. Still, we want them to know that their names reflect their family heritage. 

I make homemade sauce and meatballs and we have sauce for dinner every Sunday. Sometimes on Thursdays too (as my grandmother did). My children know about my family’s holiday traditions, and we incorporate what we can in our house when we can’t travel to be with family. 

My maternal grandparents

I also like to read books with my children that celebrate Italian culture and tradition. A family favorite are the Strega Nona books by Tomie DePaola. DePaola weaves Italian culture, traditions, and language into these heartwarming stories. I’ve taught my boys a little Italian and use these books to help incorporate the language into our daily lives. 

Much of the time I spent at my grandparents’ house was spent in the kitchen cooking and baking with my grandmother, mom, and aunts. My sister and I learned so much from them growing up. Now that they’re old enough, I’ve started to teach some of these recipes to my boys. I want to give them the same experiences I had growing up, treasuring moments in the kitchen with family cooking and baking. In addition, I will take my boys to Enzo’s Delicatessen and Italian Specialties to get some authentic Italian goodies. 

My boys and their cousins

My husband and I have a family tree book and keep extensive records for both of our families. I’ve gone over my Italian family tree with the boys, told them stories of how my great grandparents immigrated through Ellis Island, shown them the records from Ellis Island. I have my grandfathers old Italian primers from when he was in school. I’ve shown those to my boys, along with his and my grandmothers’ birth certificates and baptism certificates (written in Italian). 

And what kind of Italian would I be if I didn’t teach my children about famous Italians in history? They know all about Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Al Capone, The Godfather movies (they haven’t seen them yet but we’ve told them about them). I also told them about the Italian mafia and how their great-grandfather and grandmother knew Jimmy Hoffa. Yes, that Jimmy Hoffa. I even have a fun story my dad told me about how Jimmy Hoffa wanted to dance with my grandmother at an event they were at but my grandfather refused. Who refuses Jimmy Hoffa???? Another powerful Italian man, that’s who.

My paternal grandfather (furthest to the right) with Jimmy Hoffa and others

While I’ve told my boys all the wonderful things about being Italian, I’ve also told them how it wasn’t always wonderful for Italians in the United States. I want them to fully understand where they come from, so I’ve explained to them how many Italians were shunned and segregated against when they emigrated to the U.S.

They’ve asked me why I’m not fluent in Italian, and I’ve had to tell them it’s because of the way my great-grandparents were treated when they came here from Italy. That when they moved to Western NY, they wanted their family to assimilate so that they wouldn’t be segregated against. So, while my grandmother knew Italian, she and my grandfather wouldn’t speak it fluently around my mother and aunts and uncles. So, by default, it wasn’t taught to me. 

Italians get stereotyped quite a bit in television and movies. Our accents and love for pasta and sauce (or gravy, as some call it) get exaggerated. People always ask me if I like Olive Garden or not, if my naturally curly hair is because I’m Italian … the list goes on. But one thing that Hollywood and others do get right about Italians is our love for our families and our love for traditions. And that is what I celebrate this October for Italian-American Heritage month, and every day. 

Are you Italian-American? What are your favorite Italian family traditions?


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Leah Stuhler
Leah grew up in Western New York, lived in Chicago for 11 years, and now resides in South Carolina. She's very happy for the change in weather! Leah is happily married, and is a proud boy mom. She is a full time Middle School Theatre teacher. When she's not spending time with her family or working, Leah enjoys baking and reading. She is the creator and host of the podcast YA Book Chat, where she and her guests have fun chatting about their favorite books. Leah loves being a part of the Columbia Mom team, both as a contributing writer and Editor.


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