Italians are known for their lavish holiday celebrations and New Year’s is no exception. Each region has its own unique way of ringing in the New Year, celebrated on January 1st. But this has not always been the case. In ancient Rome, the calendar consisted of only 304 days, split into ten months, with the New Year beginning on March 1st. Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, is believed to have introduced the calendar in the seventh century BC. The Romans seem to have ignored the remaining 61 days, which fell in the middle of winter.
For most Italians, the New Year’s Eve celebration begins with a large meal of lentils and pork. Lentils represent prosperity and are at the center of the feast. Italian tradition states that if you start the New Year by eating lentils, it will bring you wealth and good fortune throughout the year. This custom goes all the way back to ancient Roman times of giving a scarsella, a small leather bag used to keep money, filled with lentils at the end of the year. Their hopes were that each lentil would turn into a coin, making the recipient one lucky and prosperous person. So, eat lentils and plenty of money will come your way in the New Year (although we cannot accept responsibility if it doesn’t quite work out that way). The most popular way lentils are served on Capodanno is with pork, a symbol of abundance, due to the meat’s high fat content, richness and flavor.
You should also be aware of the foods that are avoided on New Year’s Eve, in particular, Italians stay away from lobster and chicken. Lobsters move backwards on the sea floor and Italian superstition holds that eating the crustacean can lead to setbacks during the year. In the same vein, avoid chicken, since they scratch backwards, which could cause you regrets or dwelling on the past. In fact, to be on the safe side, Italians tend to avoid any winged fowl of December 31st since they do not want their good luck to fly away!
Following the dinner, the party usually moves outdoors, where many cities set up concerts and most villages light bonfires in public squares. It is traditional to ring in New Year’s with family and friends since it is believed that the first people you see will either bring you good or bad luck, so make sure to keep friends close and your foes very far away.
In Venice, large groups gather in San Marco Square and join together to make a massive group toast, followed by everyone kissing at the stroke of midnight.
In Rome, festivities take place primarily around Piazza del Popolo where huge crowds enjoy live bands and dancing. The following day, the square fills again with a more child-orientated show, with acrobats and mimes. There is also an outdoor classical music concert in the piazza facing the Quirinale about an hour before midnight, followed by fireworks at the stroke of midnight.
The celebration in Naples centers on the city’s magnificent fireworks display and also includes many musical events. Rimini, located along the coast in the Emilia Romagna is considered a hub of Italy’s club and nightlife scene and hosts a huge outdoor party in Piazzale Fellini. It features music, dancing, fireworks and is such a large party that it is shown on Italian television.
Wherever the Italians call home and however they choose to celebrate, the most popular way to ring in the New Year in Italy is with fireworks. Cities and towns throughout the country will have some kind of official fireworks display, but people often have their own private shows in squares, courtyards and even backyards. It can get very noisy, but it is always spectacular, visual delight. Italians have been noted for centuries as having developed the finest fireworks and while gun powder originated in the East, it took Italian flair to make the results beautiful. While fireworks in the northern regions are a sight to behold, people in the south, especially in Campania, claim theirs are the biggest, loudest and brightest of all. Some displays have become so popular that celebrants must stake out a place hours before nightfall. In addition to the beauty of the celebration, there is another superstition associated with fireworks. The loud, booming explosions frighten evil spirits, so it is another way of ensuring that the New Year begins in the best possible way.
As for the New Year’s Eve toast, most Italians will pop the cork on a bottle of prosecco or spumante as they countdown from dieci a uno at the stroke of midnight – no doubt the evil spirts aren’t thrilled with the loud popping from all of the bottles of sparkling wine either!
Visitors browsing through any of the Christmas markets or window shops in December may also notice a prolific choice of red undergarments – an Italian tradition is to sport red mutande or long undies, on New Year’s Eve to ensure good fortune. The garment must be received as a gift and may only be worn once. It is then discarded to ensure that good fortune stays with the gift recipient and not with the gift itself. The origin is often vague in the minds of most, but it is said to go back to Roman days, where red was the color of valor. Wearing red and then getting rid of the garment was believed to make the individual better suited for battle in the upcoming year.
If you are fortunate enough to be celebrating ‘alla Italiana’ this New Year’s Eve, make sure to stay away from open windows. Lancio dei cocci – literally meaning to launch shards, is the custom of throwing old dishware out of the living room or kitchen windows. This is likely to be the most Italian of all of the traditions. As midnight approaches, all of the past year’s negative feelings, spirts and bad luck are symbolically smashed as cups, dishes and saucers are flung out of the window.
New Year’s Eve celebrations carry on through New Year’s Day, which is also known as capo d’anno, literally ‘head of the year.’ In addition to La Festa di San Silvestro, New Year’s Eve is sometimes referred to as Notte di Capo d’Anno.
While many Italians spend New Year’s Day quietly, especially those who continued to ring in the New Year into the early morning hours, others find a number of events to enjoy. Ski resorts, which were a concept that developed in Italy before World War II, are packed with those who love winter sports, while many cities and towns schedule parades and special events.
On January 1st in Rome, tens of thousands gather in St. Peter’s Square, filling the streets with pageantry and music to celebrate and receive the Pope’s New Year’s Day Blessing. A focal point of Rome’s holiday season and the Pope’s Worldwide Day of Peace, the New Year’s Parade celebrates life and international good-will. The parade winds down the unusually wide Via della Conciliazione and ends in St. Peter’s Square. Participants include military, civic and school marching bands and auxiliary units and in keeping with tradition, enthusiastic spectators walk beside the bands, waving and whistling to show their appreciation. Afterwards, parade participants crowd into the square for the Pope’s annual New Year’s address and blessing. One of the most famous New Year’s Day traditions in Rome is the New Year’s Plunge when people from all over the world dive into the Tiber River from Rome’s Cavour Bridge. It is a chilly experience for the participants – which brings us to another tradition. Much of Italy is cold during the Christmas season, even in the south, as one gets into the higher elevations. In spite of that, it is common practice to leave a door and at least one window open to allow good spirits to enter the home; the open windows create a draft that will clear out the bad spirits. However you choose to celebrate the New Year, we wish you a prosperous, healthy and safe 2020!