Monday, May 09, 2011

The juggernaut

Dear Readers,

The season is upon us, like a pox--that time of year when the First Holy Communion Circus rolls into town, like a gargantuan, gaudy, Catholic Trojan horse, obliterating everything in its path, disgorging its cherub-cheeked assailants who then proceed to consume entire weekends in an orgy of inconsiderateness and suck up our hard-earned cash like a brothelful of insatiable hookers.

Here in Italy, la prima comunione has morphed into a metaphysical monstrosity, a sacramental side-show--packing more emotional and material punch than even weddings (the reason for this being that Italians become unhinged and lose all sense of appropriateness when it comes to celebrating their precious bambini). Elaborate ecclesiastical stage productions involving scores of kids are commonplace, with ceremonies lasting longer than the Oscars, and after-parties--with plenty of hifalutin loot--worthy of the Hilton sisters. Of course, this rite of passage didn't used to be such a babel-like behemoth. My husband remembers a solemn ceremony, brief enough, and a small rinfresco afterwards of plain cake and spumante with a few toothless, vellum-skinned, seldom-seen distant relatives--in addition to his immediate family--propped up in chairs lining the musty sala parocchiale. As gifts, he got an ordinary rosary, a small prayer book, and the Italian equivalent of a Mickey Mouse watch.

All the madness of the modern-day version of the event struck me--like a righteous fist--recently, as I walked past a party-supply store boasting a lurid, beribboned, Hindenburg-sized balloon (or mongolfiera) in the window, with "PRIMA COMUNIONE" stamped all over it in gold glitter. It had a cavernous gift basket attached to the bottom, the likes of which could carry a host of little holy rollers around the world in eighty days. Or more.

In reality, that basket is meant to hold a good half-ton of bomboniere, the sugar-coated almonds that traditionally are given as party favors to guests, these days in ever more elaborate and fanciful embroidered linen bundles. Inside each bundle is a little slip of paper with the name of the child and the date of her First Communion in calligraphy, lest you dare forget. Eager parents willingly spend a king's ransom on these bomboniere, and--as with much of the rest of Communion-mania--they have become increasingly secular in tone, and are often adorned with cartoon characters, action figures, or soccer balls and the like. Apparently we've reached that point in civilization when the Son of God needs a publicity boost from the likes of Hello Kitty.

But that's merely the start of the outpouring of cash--there's the fancy luncheon or dinner party to be thrown, the double-tiered gâteau or decadent millefoglie to be ordered from a good pasticceria, the expensive new duds for the ceremony, the trip to the salon for girls beforehand for hairstyling, manicures, and makeup. And then there are the gifts. I tell you, these little squirts make out like medieval sultans after a good plundering.

My baptism by fire, so to speak, was eight years ago when my eldest niece's first communion gala popped up on the calendar. I had absolutely no idea what I was in for--if I had, I would have immediately committed seppuku and been subsequently (and blissfully) absent from the whole affair. First, the gift fiasco: my husband and I had thought to give her a small gold cross necklace of the type that would be appropriate for a young girl to wear--something simple and sweet. Instead, we were requested by her parents (my depressingly bourgeois brother- and sister-in-law, otherwise known as the Bürgermeister and Frau Wiener) to chip in "as much as you can" (i.e. hundreds) for a diamond-encrusted, platinum cross pendant  from Bulgari or some such place. I was aghast. This was a bauble worthy of Elizabeth Taylor! (Me being fairly new to this country and to the family at the time, I bit my tongue and the bullet as well, nearly weeping over the loss of two-fifths of our monthly salary. Now, of course, I'd sooner eat a bicycle tire than let myself be coerced into gift-giving. I'd also relish the opportunity to explain to the hopelessly spoiled prospective communicant that you're not supposed to get what you want in this earthly life--that's what being Catholic is all about, goddammit).

In addition to this barbarism, I was forced to endure a hair-tearing three-hour ceremony in a packed-to-the-rafters mega-church, complete with musical numbers and tableaux vivants, and watch some sixty little sheep mince toward the altar where an official event photographer snapped each one posing with the resplendent, golden-robed priest and The Wafer (held aloft)--while Bette Midler's "You are the wind beneath my wings" blasted from the stereo system. My head was splitting, and I had to pee something fierce. Finally the infernal thing came to an end, erupting into a chaos of camera flashes and shouting, and in my delirium I wasn't sure if those kiddies had just been conjoined to the community of Christians or participated in an MTV awards ceremony.

After the elaborate five-course luncheon at a picturesque country restaurant, my imp-eyed niece began opening her gifts and passing them around the huge U-shaped table for us plebeians to see what riches our paychecks were capable of buying. I looked dazedly on while considering the pain-relieving effects of grappa: there was our necklace, smug in its black velvet case, as well as a lovely pair of sapphire earrings, a trendy rhinestone-studded watch, a silver and gold bracelet, and other gewgaws worthy of a maharani. Actually, she was more like the infant Christ turned Elton John and we were the adoring Magi come by way of Madison Avenue. In the years that followed, we enjoyed two more opportunities to dutifully--again at the behest of despotic parents--bestow fine jewelry (and a digital camera) upon my other nieces celebrating their first communion, and suffer through more protracted pageantry.

There may be some Quaker-like mean streak in me, but I can't help feeling that the true meaning of these ceremonies is lost in all the three-ring razzle-dazzle. When did holy get ditched for Hollywood? Don't get me wrong--I'm all for a bit of pomp if the circumstance calls for it, but I think we're drowning the baby in the bath water here.

Because Jesus Christ and Hello Kitty go so well together

Yet I fear we must reconcile ourselves to the onward march of the battalions of First Communion revelers, and resign ourselves to their Broadway-style sacramental blitzkrieg. It certainly seems to be an unstoppable force here in the Bel Paese--comprising as it does that bizarre and powerful mix of Catholicism and unbridled materialism upon which so many Italians seem to thrive. It suddenly occurs to me, though, that perhaps all this sturm und drang really has more to do with satisfying an urge which lies deep in the bowels of the Italian psyche--the boundless appetite for exhibition, the love of spectacle (along with a good party and plenty of good eats)--than anything else. I mean, think about it: why say, merely, "Violetta and Alfredo had a thing for each other," when you can perform La Traviata and bring down the house?

Indeed. Why merely have cake--or the body and blood of Christ, for that matter--when you can eat your cake and flaunt your diamonds, too?



* The above photo has been blatantly lifted from some Italian mum's blog, wherein she was just tickled pink and oozing self-satisfaction at having scored these babies.


  1. After reading this I am very excited for a book!!!!

  2. OMG. You're awesome. Awesome. I have felt this at some subconscious, primordial level but I never would have been able to articulate it like this.

    The hello kitty comment is my favorite.

    I'm coming back for more.

  3. @Alex--do you mean prayer book? Because I bet my husband's old one is buried in an armadio somewhere at my MIL's house....

    Diana--1) welcome, and 2) thank you. I keep trying to tell my kids how awesome I am, but they just giggle knowingly.

  4. The Burgermeisters, indeed. Brava!

  5. You nailed it perfectly! I've been invited to two communions this year, so I'm in the planning stages of being able to contract the Ebola virus twice (and buying a few bottles of Dom Perignon with the money I've saved).

  6. @papaya--pop a cork or two and enjoy the Ebola :)

  7. Hilarious, as usual. And terrifying! Not being Catholic, I have agreed to baptize our bub for my husband's sake. But I am secretly hoping he'll just forget and save us from the madness.

  8. Hi Michelle, glad you enjoyed :) Baptism is the first step on the slippery slope, of course, but you're a woman with her wits about her so not to worry! One need not succumb to the madness and materialism.

  9. My first communion was very austere. We had to wear church-issued gowns and veils and wooden crosses around our necks which made us look like miniature nuns instead of virginal brides. The next day at school I remember all the Italian kids bragging about the presents and money they got! And bomboniere... we got those at every baptism, wedding and yes, first communion. But never in a Hello Kitty bag!

  10. Well said. This post has just 1) made my ridiculously tedious day job so much better with a good laugh -just what a slow afternoon needs- and 2) said exactly what I needed to rant about after spending an entire weekend catering for a prima comunione "merenda" (ie stuff your face as much as you can so we don't have to buy/make dinner) for 80 people! Apparently the made-from-scratch dishes didn't go down nearly as well as the cold, bought mega-pizzas that the family had bought on an impulse to a CATERED event "in case there wasn't enough food" (won't even go into the weird looks at dishes such as hummus and NY cheesecake that the folk weren't familiar with - that's another topic all together!)

  11. Isabel, as always, thanks for dropping by and sharing your perspective. Emiko, thanks for commenting--coming from someone with such a lovely blog, I'm honored! Funny you mention Italian reactions to cheesecake etc.--I'm brewing up a post on that exact topic... :)


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