On Christmas Eve ten years ago, I traded one family tradition for another.
Instead of sitting at a crowded table to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, perhaps the most popular of Italian-American meals, I was standing in a small apartment in Greenwich Village familiarizing myself with the ritual to diagnose and cure malocchio—the evil eye.
On the kitchen counter before me sat a bowl of water, a bottle of olive oil, a spoon, a cup of salt, and a box of matches. In my right hand was a sheet of paper with a very unusual prayer. A statue of the Virgin Mary stared down at me from a shelf above the sink, wreathed by pepperoncini and cloves of garlic.
Handing down secret family rituals is a tradition among Italians. While there are different theories about why this protective charm is taught on Christmas Eve, the most common is linked to the redemptive qualities associated with the birth of Jesus. His legends, after all, are filled with moments of miraculous healing. Over the years I’ve also come to associate it with the spiritual significance of the winter solstice – a return of light after a long journey through darkness.
I certainly felt that power as I stood at the counter memorizing words very few people knew, part of the oral tradition of Italian folk magic. The prayer, recited in the Neapolitan dialect, was at once an invocation and a directive, calling on a particular saint to remove the evil eye immediately.
As the child of Italian immigrants, I was accustomed to practices that blended the sacred and the occult. I had been raised in a home where herbal remedies healed fevers, odd hand gestures summoned spirits, and malocchio was an everyday occurrence. The kitchen was both a cozy nook and an altar. When my grandparents immigrated to America, they brought with them the vestiges of an old craft steeped in practical mysticism.
According to Lucia, the close friend who was about to impart her wisdom to me, the malocchio ritual had been in her family for generations. Her parents had passed it down to her on Christmas Eve in her youth. Though she and I were not related, we had become family in the way Italians often do – forging bonds through cultural familiarity and the instant kinship of shared language.
Now I was standing in her kitchen. She approached the counter and placed a flickering white candle next to the bottle of olive oil. As the clock approached midnight, Lucia locked eyes with me and said, “Attenzione! You’re ready.” She took the sheet of paper from my hand and instructed me to recite the prayer three times, and I did.
She picked a match from the box on the counter, struck it, set the sheet of paper on fire, and then chucked it into the sink. Dripping olive oil onto the thumb of her right hand, Lucia traced a symbol on my forehead and over my eyelids, lips, and each of my fingers.
The clock struck midnight. Lucia spoke the name of a mutual friend who had been exhibiting symptoms of malocchio.
Did he have it?
I prayed over the bowl, then picked up the spoon and filled it with olive oil. I let three drops fall into the water and waited several seconds. The oil didn’t float or form a shape; it vanished completely, a sure sign that the evil eye was at work. I reached for the salt and the matches and performed the second half of the ritual, ensuring that the malocchio had been broken.
Lucia grabbed my hand and whispered, “Ti benedico,”— I bless you, in Italian.
Facing the statue of the Virgin Mary, she made me make two promises. The first was to keep the prayer a secret. The second was to use this magic whenever someone asked because every healing, no matter how small, is an opportunity for rebirth and newfound salvation.
As we face another pandemic winter and a new variant surge, these opportunities seem few and far between. Not every ailment or spate of bad luck is the result of malocchio. And yet, in so many ways, the evil eye has become a metaphor for life today, punctuated as it is with widespread fear, loss of life, economic strife, political division, and uncertainty.
The traditions and rituals of the holiday season we engage in – and long for when they are upended – help us to make order of this chaos. The folk magic I practice follows that logic by illuminating our intersection with the Divine and mining faith from a bleak place.
And if you are not ready to take that step, simple acts of kindness, like charity and volunteering, and practicing self-care, from prayer to meditation, can enable us to overcome some of the world’s troubles. Resilience is at the heart of that message. But whether it’s the rebirth of the Oak King, or a messiah and miraculous healer from Bethlehem, our radical embrace of hope, love, and a bit of old-world magic can light the way forward.