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Discover the Ritual of First Holy Communion in Italy
The Motherland performs the sacrament in a very different way than it used to
I thought I knew about First Holy Communion in Italy. I always had one image of the Catholic sacrament when one first takes the body of Christ in the form of the Eucharist – a faded black-and-white photo of my veil-headed aunts standing with their hands folded in prayer and wearing beautiful, handmade white dresses made of curtains and sheets. They looked like tiny brides standing on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples in Italy. My own communion in the United States looked similar. The only real difference was that my dress was bought at a store (and probably was not reincarnated as a dress after serving other duties in the home).
Lots has changed in Italy since my aunts made their communion in the early 1950s or so. In fact, that picture is a fossil from another time. While I was dating my now husband, I attended the communion of all three of his nieces on the island of Ischia in Italy. The biggest difference is that white robes – similar to what monks or altar boys might wear – have replaced those wedding-like dresses and suits. Yep, even the boys wear the robes. My in-laws told me that too many parents complained that there were high expectations for people to outdo one another with the outfits, so the parishes did away with them.
Girls do not wear a veil, but they all had their hair done in braids or buns with flowers or crystals and fancy barrettes or headbands. All the kids carry lilies and candles. And they sit on the altar with the priest. Generally speaking, at least in Ischia, which is a small island with hundreds of churches, the parishes are small and the communion classes are miniscule. In other words, everyone can fit on the small altars of the small churches. The Mass is usually quite lovely with the parents of the children making communion reciting the readings and bringing up the gifts. And there's some sort of music, often with live musicians playing instruments and singing.
Pretty much all the kids families gather after the ceremony for a celebration. Some host friends and family at a restaurant, but many have everyone to their home. There's lots of food, starting with antipasto and pasta, a meat or fish dish, and dessert, which always features at least a decadent cake. The hosts give out bomboniere or favors, which is also typical of baptisms and weddings. Each event has its own typical favors. At a communion, kids often give out figurines of glass or ceramics that feature an animal or a religious icon, such as a saint or cross. I myself have received a ceramic ladybug, wooden frog holding a clock, and a statue of the Madonna with Rosary beads around her neck.
Usually, each parish allows children (usually between the ages of 8 and 10) to make Holy Communion three times per year. Parents have some say in when they'd prefer their child make the sacrament. In the days and weeks right afterward, the Communion class often marches in parades as part of a saint's feast day. They once again wear the robes and carry lilies. While I can get on board with the marching and the celebrating, I have to admit I missed the little brides and grooms.
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