New Year’s Eve as we know it was an invention of the ancient Romans. In 153 B.C. they moved the start of the new year from the Spring equinox to January 1 and dedicated the first month of the year to Janus, the two-faced god who looks back toward the old year and ahead toward the new one.
For six days, Romans celebrated by hanging lights, preparing lavish banquets and decorating their houses with boughs of greenery, including holly and mistletoe (considered magical plants because they bore fruit in the dead of winter). The Romans gave each other glass jars filled with dates and dried figs in honey so the new year would be sweet and full of good fortune. These offerings, called strenne from the Sabine goddess of prosperity, Strenia, were the predecessors of the presents we exchange at Christmas.
Italians refer to New Year’s Eve by its liturgical name, la Festa di San Silvestro, the feast of St. Sylvester, a fourth-century pope. Traditionally families and friends share a huge dinner called il cenone (the big supper). Lentils, symbols of prosperity because they resemble coins, are almost always on the menu, often served with pork, another symbol of the richness of life.
Tuscans eat lentils with cotechino, a big pork sausage cut like coins. Italians in Bologna and Modena eat them with zampone (pig’s trotter). The deep brown lentils of Castelluccio are an Umbrian specialty; the tiny orange-tinged lenticchie di Santo Stefano grow in the Abruzzi. In Piedmont, rice symbolizes money, so a cenone in Milan is sure to include risotto. Raisins, another symbol for coins, appear in desserts throughout the peninsula.
In a relatively recent tradition, couples give each other gifts of red underwear—the color that wards off the malocchio (Evil Eye) and symbolizes love, prosperity and fertility. Traditionally Italians wear these special undies only once and throw them away after New Year’s Eve.That’s not all that Italians toss out. In order to make room for the new, they once threw old brooms, dishes, even furniture out the window. Regulations now prohibit this dangerous dumping, but the practice continues in some parts of the South.
After the evening feast, most Italian cities throw a big party under the stars with music and fireworks. The epicenter for New Year’s Eve celebrations, Italy’s equivalent of Times Square in New York, is the Piazzo del Popolo in Rome. Huge crowds gather for an outdoor concert, the countdown to midnight and a magnificent fireworks display that lasts for at least an hour. The favored drink is spumante or prosecco, Italian sparkling wine, particularly for a midnight toast (brindisi) and cries of “Buon Anno” or “Buon Anno Nuovo!”
Whether public or private, il Veglione di Capodanno (a New Year’s party) typically lasts all night. As they head home at the dawn of Capodanno, New Year’s Day, weary revelers watch the first sunrise of the newborn year—and look out for the first person they see. According to ancient traditions, an old man or a hunchbacked person brings good luck, while a child or a priest brings bad luck.
“Anno nuovo, vita nuova!” This Italian saying literally means “new year, new life,” but it also translates as “Let’s have a fresh start!” –a wonderful wish for 2020!
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. For more information, visit diannehales.com.