Happy New Year!
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 of beginnings, 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 now 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 (literally 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, or pig’s trotter. In Piedmont, rice symbolizes money, so a cenone is sure to include risotto. Raisins, another symbol for coins, appear in desserts throughout the peninsula.
In a relatively recent tradition, couples give each gifts of red underwear—a color that wards off the malocchio (Evil Eye) and a symbol of 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 literally threw old brooms, dishes, even furniture out the window. Regulations now prohibit this dangerous dumping, but the practice continues in some parts of Naples and the South.
After the evening feast, most Italian cities throw a big party under the stars with music, dancing, and fireworks. Italy’s equivalent of Times Square in New York is the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. Huge crowds gather for an outdoor concert and a magnificent midnight fireworks display. The favored drink is spumante or prosecco, Italian sparkling wine, for a toast (brindisi) when the clock strikes twelve.
Whether public or private, il veglione di Capodanno (the 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—and look out for the first person they see in the newborn year. According to ancient traditions, an old man or a hunchbacked person carries good luck, while a child or a priest brings bad luck in the upcoming year.
Words and Expressions
Il conto alla rovescia -- the countdown to midnight (meno 10, meno 9, meno 8, meno 7 ...)
I botti di Capodanno -- New Year’s firecrackers and fireworks
“Anno nuovo, vita nuova” -- new year, new life (let’s make a fresh start)
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, now in paperback, and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.