Popes, Pig Trotters and Red Underwear; Italian New Years’ Traditions!

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By Alberto Amore

New Years Eve in Italy, known as ‘Capodanno’ also marks the night of Saint Sylvester of ‘Notte di San Silvestro’. It is a night tied up in ancient mythologies, religious practices and red underwear, but we’ll get to that in a minute. The Italians invited the known world to join in wild celebrations to see in the New Year and celebrate new beginnings.

In southern Italy the ancient practice of dropping old and unused goods, often kitchenware from the window is becoming less typical in the modern day.  It is, however, a must, throughout the old country to share ‘cena’ or dinner with friends and or family. Who would have thought that there would be food involved in a celebration concocted by our Italian ancestors?

Various meals are traditional to various meals but commonly, cotechino, pig trotters or entrails are eaten with lentils. In fact lentils said to represent coins for good fortune are almost universally eaten throughout the old country. When the bell tolls at midnight tradition asks that you eat one spoonful of lentils per chime to bring good fortune for the year ahead.

More universally recognisable, however is the tradition of fire in the sky. Fireworks play an important role in almost all Italian festivals and New Years Eve is no different as cracker spectaculars are organised in even the smallest of villages, often alongside festivities that take up a fair like atmosphere, including bands, entertainment, food markets and children’s entertainment. 

New Years Eve celebrations can be traced back to Babylonian times and the celebration of the equinox. Astronomers and boring people may describe the equinox as a biannual occurence, in which the the sun crosses the celestial equator or ‘equinoctical point’. For the Babylonians and for us casual observers its when day and night are of equal length or the advent of the Spring and Fall seasons.

Similar celebrations were adopted by the Ancient Romans and popularized throughout the western world. The Romans were using a calendar believed to be created by Romulus, Rome’s founder, which commenced in late March based on the Vernal Equinox (We might call it Spring). Other rulers added Januarius and Februarius although it became increasingly out of alignment with the solar cycle. 

It was none other than the great Julius Ceaser himself who consulted with the foremost mathematicians and astronomers of the time to develop what he humbly decreed the Julian Calendar which is the basis of the modern Gregorian Calendar used today.

Caesar was also responisble for initiating January 1 as the first day of the year after Janus, again his namesake.

Appropriately, Janus, again Julius’ namesake, has two faces which allow him to look back into the past and forward into the future. Romans celebrated the New Year through the offering of sacrifices to Janus and the exchanging of gifts with one another. Many Romans would decorate their homes with Julian laurel wreathes, and attending typically wild Roman parties. Sound familiar?

A more devoutly Christian Rome moved New Years to coincide with other dates of religious significance but in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII re-instituted January 1st as New Year’s Day.

In medieval Europe, Christian leaders temporarily replaced January 1 as the first of the year with days carrying more religious significance, such as December 25 (the anniversary of Jesus’ birth) and March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation); Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day in 1582.

Today San Silvestro or Saint Sylvester’s Day is tied to New Years Eve and celebrates a pontif from the begginnings of the Christian Roman Empire. With an increasingly secular population, Italians celebrate with family and friends and see in the new year with fireworks like much of the rest of us.

Underneath their effortless style however, is a tradition that is heavily observed by all Italians, both the secular and the heavily devout Christians, that is the observance of red underwear under your clothing. 

Intentionally cheeky, it is a popular custom in Italy to wear red underwear under your clothing with the superstition that it will bring fertility in the new year or more broadly the custom is to attract good luck in the new year. Some believe that certain shades of red must be worn, whilst others believe that it is only lucky if they are new undergarments whilst many believe that the red underwear must be gifted by someone. In fact, so popular are these beliefs that store windows are full of red and racey underwear in the lead up to new years eve. On the eve itself, endless lines to the bathroom suggest that people are changing into their red underwear, particularly if it has to be new!

Try and incorporate some of these traditions in your New Years eve festivities, after all what can be grander than eating with friends and family. If you aren’t one for pig trotters then simply put on something a little racey and red and know that under at all you are an Italian at heart. I don’t think Saint Sylvester will mind one bit!