Bring in the New Year Italian style! Italy has both classic and wacky traditions for Capodanno.
New Year’s Eve in Italy is a bit like a perfect storm of Italian-ness.
Bidding goodbye to one year and welcoming the next is an incredibly festive holiday all over the world, and Italians are a festive bunch. They’ll take advantage of any excuse to have a party. New Year’s Eve in Italy, or Capodanno, is also a holiday with traditional ways of celebrating that are often tied to culture, and Italy has some pretty interesting cultural rituals.
Some of Italy’s celebratory New Year’s Eve customs are to be expected – eating a special meal, getting together with friends – while others sound like someone made them up. Taken together, these traditions make New Year’s Eve an exciting and unforgettable time to be in Italy.
New Year’s Eve customs in Italy
Symbolic food for a prosperous New Year
The traditional dishes eaten on New Year’s Eve in Italy are all symbolic, bringing diners all sorts of good things in the coming year.
A pork sausage called cotechino is often the main course. It’s a particularly fatty sausage, representing abundance. Alongside the sausage you’ll inevitably find lentils, or lenticchie. Their round shape and vaguely burnished gold color supposedly resemble coins, and so symbolize prosperity. It makes perfect sense that you’d want to increase your chances of abundance and prosperity in the new year.
For dessert, many families serve grapes. They’re supposed to have been saved from the fall harvest, so that eating them on New Year’s Eve displays an ability to be frugal. That frugality will be especially useful in the coming year if the lentils and sausage don’t do their job.
It wouldn’t be New Year’s without a toast
Sparkling wines are, of course, the traditional toast at midnight in Italy – and there are plenty of great Italian bubbly options to choose from. From Moscato d’Asti to harder-to-find metodo classico bubbles, there’s a sparkling wine for every palate.
On the sweetest end of the scale is Moscato d’Asti, exclusively from Piedmont. Don’t be fooled by the sub-par version usually sold in the United States – the real thing is a great dessert bubbly that’s sweet without being cloying (perfect with your panettone or pandoro). Next on the line of sweetness is famous Prosecco from the Veneto region, though still classified as dry. Make sure you get the good Valdobbiadene DOCG Superiore stuff—or, for especially special occasions, pick up a Cartizze cru Prosecco, a single-vineyard wine. Finally, heading back to Piedmont, try one of the sparkling wines that are making a name in this region, such as a Gavi di Gavi metodo classico made from the native grape cortese.
If you want to jazz up your holiday beverage options, consider an elegant Italian cocktail like a Bellini, made from Prosecco and peach nectar: classic and always appreciated.
Ask for red underwear for Christmas
Going out to a party on New Year’s Eve often means dressing up. In Italy, it also means putting on a brand-new pair of red underwear.
Most Italians don’t associate the red underwear tradition with anything more than sex and fertility these days, but there are actually ancient origins involved. In ancient Rome, the color red was associated with war – but wearing the color red was a way of purging one’s fear of war. The modern version is that wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve is said to keep disasters and evil at bay for the coming year.
Technically, you’re not allowed to buy your own red underwear for New Year’s Eve – it must be a gift. Also, you must throw it out the next day, or it won’t be able to do its full job of warding off disaster. When you see red underwear on sale at outdoor markets and in shops all over Italy in December, now you’ll know why.
Fireworks—or evil spirits, be gone!
It wouldn’t be New Year’s Eve in Italy without fireworks. Italians love fireworks, and that affection grows stronger as you move south. In Naples, nearly every neighborhood will have an assortment of families setting off their own firecrackers and rockets in addition to the big, official show at midnight.
The beauty of colorful lights in the sky might seem reason enough for fireworks, but historically there’s another reason they’re particularly appropriate at the dawn of a new year – loud noises scare away evil spirits. Big, booming explosions will keep those evil spirits from following you into the new year, so the superstitious Italians once believed.
There are enough things exploding and being set on fire in some parts of Italy—particularly the south—that you’ll want to be careful walking outside after dark, lest you walk into the middle of a blast zone. From a safe distance, however, it’s an unforgettable (and loud) way to ring in the new year – especially if you’re fond of fireworks.
Out with the old, literally
There used to be a more widespread belief that “out with the old” at the stroke of midnight should be taken literally, with people literally throwing things like plates and pots out of their windows all over Italy.
This tradition has its origins in the same superstitious category as fireworks: shattering your dishes in the street gets rid of last year’s negativity. In some places, one needs only to throw a plate against the wall outside the house (or even inside), but in other parts of the country (namely Naples) that’s not nearly enough.
It’s less common today than it once was, but in Naples and other parts of southern Italy people aren’t content to destroy dishes. You’ll see clothing, furniture, and even broken or old appliances being heaved out of windows. It’s best to keep an eye on the windows overhead at midnight – or in some cities stay indoors on New Year’s Eve – to avoid being hit by large falling objects.