Italy is a country rich with rituals. Customs and beliefs have been handed down generation to generation for centuries.
When it comes to New Year’s Eve, the celebration and menus are abundant with symbolism.
Italians believe in letting go of the old year and moving toward the future. One gesture of letting go of the past is throwing away old things. Old clothes, pieces of furniture and even pots and pans are discarded. Look out below, because those who still honor this tradition toss these items out of the window into the streets.
In southern Italy especially, it’s “out with the old and in with the new” in an effort to drive away bad luck. Had a bad year? Want to rid yourself of the unhappiness? Grab something you no longer want and toss it out the window. If you live on an upper floor, you may want to warn your neighbors to grab a helmet.
In parts of northern Italy, where my family comes from, the custom for banishing bad luck involves shattering tableware outdoors, in front of your home. I’ve never done it, but thinking it might feel kinda good. I can spare a dish or two.
Another ritual to keep bad omens away in the coming year is the Yule Log. Evidently bad omens don’t like fire, so the log is burned on the final day of the year. The ashes are kept in the fireplace to protect the home. It’s also believed that the warmth of the fire is an invitation for the Virgin Mary to warm baby Jesus.
Italians are passionate about fireworks. When the year ends and another is ushered in the Italian skies light up with color and big bangs. From little villages to the largest of cities, it’s an exciting revelry. The farther south you travel in Italy the more elaborate the display.
My personal favorite on the list of traditions has to do with undergarments. Red undergarments. Superstition or tradition, the belief is that wearing red on New Years Eve into New Years Day can bring love, good luck and and fertility. When you walk through an Italian market place or admire window displays you will notice a bounty of red skivvies for the whole family. The day after these undies are tossed out for optimum results. Not out the window, however.
New Years Eve cuisine is just a rich with traditions. Meals are hearty and centered around the hopes for abundance in the year to come.
At the stroke of midnight Italians will dine on sausages and green lentils. The sausages, cotechino e lenticchie, contain the meat of the pig trotter, which has a high fat content, are the symbol of the abundance hoped for. Life should be rich. Sausages will be sliced to resemble coins.
The cotechino is boiled over low heat for hours before serving. Zampone is another type of pork based sausage that is popular and can be prepared in a variety of ways.
Lentils represent luck and prosperity. Peas are included in this category.
In many parts of Italy white risotto will be added to the menu. Rice having the shape of some ancient coins.
Dinner is capped off with dried fruit, raisins are a must, and grapes. Tradition has it that it requires tremendous willpower to conserve some grapes from a late Fall harvest until New Year’s Eve. Such a gesture signals that everyone gathered at the table will be wise and frugal with any newfound wealth in the New Year.
During ancient Roman times people gifted honey and figs to one another, wishing the recipient sweetness in the New Year. Bay branches, representative of good fortune, were also given. Often figs were wrapped in Laurel leaves in Naples and given as gifts.
New Year’s Eve is also known as La Festa di San Silvestro, Saint Sylvester’s feast day. St. Sylvester was a pope in the 4th century, who was buried on Dec. 31. New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, is known as Capodanno (kah|poh|DAHN|noh), and literally translates to “head of the year.”
So, light a fire, find some crockery you can part with, or an old pot you can literally toss and shop for red undies and have yourself a Happy New Year, Italian style.
Mangia Bene e’Buon Anno
Lentils With Italian Sausage
(Lenticchie con Salsiccia Italiana)
1 lb. Lentils
1 lb. Sweet Italian sausage
1 lg. red onion
2 stalks celery
2 lg. carrots
2 cloves garlic
salt and pepper to taste
4 Tbs. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (I’d use one with nice picante)
Dice onion, celery and carrots (in Italian cooking this is the “trilogy”). Keep separate.
Finely mince garlic.
In medium pot heat EVOO and add carrots. Saute 5 minutes. Add celery. Saute 5 minutes. Add Onion and saute 5 minutes longer. Add garlic.
Cut sausage into 1” pieces and add uncooked sausage to mixture.
Salt and pepper to taste.
Add lentils and enough warm water to cover the ingredients 1” over the lentils.
Cover pot and simmer for 1 hr. 15 minutes.
Chop parsley and use as garnish.
Prior to serving drizzle a little EVOO over each serving.
Serve with crusty Italian bread.
If you prefer a more contemporary menu, grill or roast your sausages. The following Roman recipe makes a great side dish and you’d still be in keeping with the traditional foods for New Years Eve.
3 oz. green peas (if fresh-cook first)
6 oz. heavy cream
2 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
salt and black pepper to taste
1 Tbs. unsalted butter
Whisk eggs and cream in medium bowl. Add nutmeg, cheese, salt and pepper. Gently fold in peas.
Butter 4 individual baking forms. Fill 2/3 full with mixture.
Place baking forms into shallow baking pan with a small amount of water in the bottom of the pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until Sformato is golden on top.
Allow to set 5 minutes before inverting onto serving dish. Serve immediately.
When it’s not New Years Eve you can substitute peas with sauteed mushrooms, sauteed leeks, asparagus tips or chopped artichoke hearts.