In ancient Rome, the New Year began on March 1. At that time, the calendar consisted of only 10 months totaling 304 days in the year. The 10 months were named Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November and December. The last six names were taken from the words for five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten. Romulus, the legendary first ruler of Rome supposedly introduced the calendar around 700 B.C. One can joke about it and mention that since Italians have a distain for cold weather, they seemed to have ignored the remaining 61 days, which fell in the middle of winter.
In Italy, it is traditional to ring in the New Year with family and friends. The superstition is that the first people you see will either bring you good or bad luck, so make sure to keep your friends close.
As the New Year approaches, please take a moment to read about some of Italy’s New Year’s customs and the myths and the reasons surrounding them. There is a good chance that you are aware of some of the traditions, but the chances are that you may not know the background behind all of them. Now is your chance to catch up on your Italian folklore and history.
It seems that everyone now uses fireworks to celebrate the New Year. Although Italians did not invent gun powder, they were making plenty of noise to ward off evil spirits well before the invention of the explosive mixture. The roots of using fireworks, or more precisely booming sounds to ward off evil at midnight is an Italian custom that predates everyone else’s use of fireworks. Yes, Italians can claim credit for the use of fireworks at midnight, but not for the dazzling display of brilliant colored sparkles. In centuries past, it was all about the noise and the bigger the boom, the greater the chances of getting rid of pesky spirits. In Italy, it is believed that demons and evil spirts do not like those sounds, so the fireworks were not so much about the beauty and grandeur, but making a lot of noise. Even the loud pops of Italian spumante and prosecco bottles are associated with warding off evil spirits and that’s why you’ll find them on each Italian table on New Year’s Eve.
The “Lancio dei Cocci”
This was a custom that was far more popular in the past than it is today, but in villages in Italy, you will still hear the crash of dishware when the clock strikes twelve. The lancio dei cocci literally means to launch shards; it is the custom of throwing your old dishware out of your living room window. This is likely to be the most Italian of all of the New Year’s traditions. As midnight rings, all of the past year’s negative feelings, spirts and bad luck are smashed symbolically through cups, dishes and saucers flying out the window. You don’t necessarily have to throw things out of the window. The lancio dei cocci can be done inside the house against a wall or on the floor. Long before psychotherapy, Italians perfected the cathartic release!
Keeping Doors and Windows Open on New Year’s Day
In Italy it is cold in much of the country during the holiday season, although not in the same way International Falls, Minnesota is cold, but as has been previously mentioned, Italians do not like the cold! In spite of that, it is a common practice to leave a door and at least one window open (two would be even better) to allow the good spirits to enter your home. The open windows will create a draft that will clear out the bad spirits, especially the stubborn ones that stuck around through the New Year’s Eve’s fireworks.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
In most of the world, kissing under the mistletoe is a Christmas tradition. In Italy, it is more commonly known as a custom for New Year’s Eve. For centuries, special powers have been associated with mistletoe, especially romance. For this reason, kissing under the mistletoe on New Year’s Eve is thought to enhance one’s chances of finding love and any woman who refused a kiss under the bough was said to be punished with bad luck.
Wearing Red Underwear
Most Italians have heard of this tradition and follow it, at least in part. But many assume that the reason for the red undergarments are as a sign of passion. Wrong! The tradition goes back to Roman times. The color red was associated with war and bloodshed, but wearing red was a way of warding off the fear of battle. Therefore, wearing a red undergarment on New Year’s Eve symbolically helps to fend off evil and negative feelings so that you may start the New Year off on the right foot!
There are a few rules that go along with this: the red undergarment must be brand new and has to come to you as a gift. If you buy it for yourself, you’re cheating. And you do not keep the underwear. If you want the beneficial power to hold up against evil, as soon as you’ve finished the night’s celebrations – into the garbage they go! Therefore gentlemen, it may be prudent to forego the gifting of La Perla red lingerie for Christmas and wait for another occasion. For a simple twist on the custom, many Italians will have a family member pin a red ribbon on their underwear to ward off evil.
What Not to Eat
While foods that brings luck are essential to the first meal one consumes in the New Year, it is just as important to know what foods to avoid. Italians love seafood on Christmas Eve and lobster ravioli is a treat that few can resist, but stay away from the crustacean on New Year’s! Lobsters move backward and this could lead to setbacks during the year. In the same vein, don’t have chicken either. Chickens scratch backwards, which could cause you regrets or dwelling on the past. In fact, to be on the safe side, avoid any winged fowl – you don’t want your good luck to fly away!
Eating Lentils at Midnight
Eating lentils at midnight on New Year’s Eve brings good luck, or so we believe. Everyone seems to be rather vague as to why. To be honest, there are a few theories behind this one. Legumes including beans, peas and lentils are symbolic of money. The version that we will go with is that the round flat golden brown appearance of some lentils resembles gold coins. Romans used to give gifts of little satchels full of the lentils as a way to wish the recipient wealth and well-being. In Italy, it’s customary to eat sausages and green lentils (cotechino con lenticchie), just after midnight – a particularly lucky meal because pork has its own lucky associations. Pig’s feet are associated with prosperity. People in Bologna and Modena eat lentils with “Zampone,” the same sausage mixture stuffed into the skin of a pig’s foot. So, the theory goes, if you eat lentils with pork, plenty of money will come your way in the New Year. For those who aren’t fond of a heavy meal after midnight, try some peanuts, since they too are legumes!
This is the newest of the customs. In Italy, it has become popular in the past few years for people to offer 12 grapes to guests to consume at midnight. Each grape symbolizes a golden coin, one for each of month of the year. It’s a lot easier than cooking cotechino con lenticchie and maybe that’s one of the reason’s it’s become popular these days.
And Last, But Not Least… Tombola!
To many in Italy, it’s not New Year’s Eve unless a game of tombola is played. Just like bingo, tombola is one of those games every Italian American has played at least once in their lifetime. It may have been with your grandparents and there’s a very good chance that it was played on New Year’s Eve. Where did this custom originate and why?
The game of tombola was born in Naples in the 18th century as a way to reduce the amount of gambling that the general populous engaged in. Gambling was legal in the Regno di Napoli at the time, but the Church frowned on it. Since declaring gambling to be illegal wasn’t going to go over well (it was a significant source of income for the Kingdom), a deal was struck between Charles, the Bourbon King of Naples and the Dominican Friars. During the Christmas season, there would be no gambling. As a remedy to this, the Neapolitans came up with a game that they could play in private, one that would be similar to a lottery – a game of chance, rather than skill and tombola was born. Just another case of Italian ingenuity and creativity!