Italy has been celebrating mothers for more than 2000 years. As the dark, cold winter gave way to the bright rebirth of Spring, the ancient Romans paid tribute to their gods of fertility. One holiday, Matronalia, was dedicated to Juno, the queen of the gods, and children gave gifts to their mothers on this day. Traditionally la festa della mamma in Italy fell on May 8. The current practice of celebrating Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May (la seconda domenica di maggio) started in 1957.
La mamma italiana is part of her family’s life every day of the year. Men may hold the highest political offices, but the person at the helm of the family—the strongest Italian institution—is Mamma. Every child yearns to be a cocco di mamma (Mommy’s darling). Grown men called mammoni (big Mommy’s boys) remain at home well into their thirties (and sometimes beyond). Mammismo (“momism”), some contend, stems from a son’s belief that nothing could ever compare with amore materno (motherly love).
“La mamma è sempre la mamma” (the Mom is always the Mom), Italian friends say, adding, “ma molto, molto di più per noi italiani!” (but much, more more for us Italians). Why does an Italian mother inspire such passionate devotion? Here are some reasons suggested by Italian writers:
*She is una sorta di creatura mitologica (a sort of mythological creature).
A wizard at multi-tasking, she can do many things at once—working, cooking, running errands, tidying up, yet always keeping in mind every single event taking place that day in the lives of her loved ones.
*She has i super poteri (super powers).
Even when she is not physically with them, la mamma manages to be present with her heart — feeling and knowing what is happening in her children’s lives and always just an SMS (text) or call away.
*Her kitchen is il miglior ristorante del mondo (the best restaurant in the world.)
Even in the finest dining establishments, Italians fondly recall how their mothers prepared the same dish—and inevitably did it better.
*She is an enciclopedia vivente (living encyclopedia).
Far more reliably than Siri or Alexa, Italian mothers know how to do everything: fight a cold, soothe a baby, fix almost anything that breaks, select the freshest produce, help heal a broken heart.
*She is (quasi) sempre ragione (almost always right).
Italians estimate that an Italian mother’s grado di infallibilità (degree of infallibility) approaches 99 percent. The reason: She combines wisdom with il grande dono dell’empatia (the great gift of empathy) so she responds with her heart as well as her head.
t’s no wonder that mothers inspired the most common—and versatile–expression in Italian: Mamma mia! Literally “my Mom,” the phrase can translate as “My God!”, “How great!”, “Oh no!” or “Incredible!” Depending on context and inflection, these two words can convey a wide range of human emotions — from surprise to shock, delight to disbelief, joy to horror. But when a child utters them, they always resound with love.
Mothers everywhere share the soul of la mamma Italiana. And so I say, Auguri a tutte le mamme! Best wishes to all the mothers!
Dianne Hales is the author of LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. You can download her most recent book, “A” Is for Amore, for free at diannehales.com.