Culture and Customs in Old Newark

by Charles McGrath


Our culture is our wealth and not unlike money at times it seems what we acquired yesterday is more relevant than tomorrow.

I was born into the Irish culture but through conscription and marriage I am heavily into the Italian culture. While I have never visited Ireland, I have visited Italy numerous times. If I may let me try to share some customs of both nationalities. I'm sure most of them will be very familiar to all.


When ever you referred to a deceased person one would always say "Lord have mercy on him or her".
Example I remember Uncle Joe "Lord have mercy on him" he would take us fishing every summer back in the 1950's.

Knock on wood when you refer to something that came from your good fortune. How many times have we done that?
1) There is, I'm told, an old Irish belief that you should knock on wood to let the little people know that you are thanking them for a bit of good luck. Others have sought a meaning in which the wood symbolizes the timber of the cross, but this may be a Christianisation of an older ritual.

Before a new born baby was taken out in public he/she had to be baptized.
1) The prerequisite for the child's baptism was the mother being Churched
a) Churched the mother would go to church to receive the sacrament of penance and holy communion before the baptism.
2) The mother would not attend the baptism. Only father and godparents would represent the family.


"Mal Occhi" the evil eye. This is brought on by being over attentive or over complimentary. This can be brought on by latent envy. One of the ways to counteract it was to say "God bless him/her ".
Example Oh what beautiful baby girl "God bless her."
1) If this blessing was omitted someone else would immediately say " God bless her ". If that wasn't done the child would be overlooked.

Overlooked To undo it the mother's thumb was dipped in olive oil and the sign of the cross was made on the baby's forehead. Silent prayers would follow to complete the "overlook".

Professional mourners:

Does anyone remember the Italian professional mourners? I read that the Irish also used them (they were called Keeners).
My father would take me to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery at least once a month. More often than not I would hear a woman crying in that distance. It gave me an eerie feeling because she wasn't just crying she was wailing. My father told me the woman crying and wailing was a professional mourner. The Italian family of the deceased would hire her to mourn at the grave of their loved one.

All of the above I experienced in my younger years none of the above have I experienced in recent years.

Their origins go back to the beginning and they may seem to be superficial. But they do seem to give depth to that which is missing in today's world.

Something is more important than oneself.


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