Will you be celebrating New Year’s in Italy? Here’s a guide of what to expect. From Italian New Year’s traditions to foods and rituals, we’ve got you covered. Find out what Italians do for luck and money on New Year’s, what they eat, what they wear, and how to say Happy New Year’s. Last but not least, find out what New Year’s traditions children take part in, and tips for how to recover on New Year’s Day.
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DECEMBER 31: SAN SILVESTRO
In Italy, New Year’s Eve is commonly called la notte di San Silvestro (the night of Saint Sylvester). For Catholics, it is the feast day of Saint Sylvester: Pope Sylvester I, who served at the beginning of the 4th century, allegedly converted emperor Constantine to Christianity, and died on December 31st, 335.
In Italian, New Year’s Eve is also called l’ultimo dell’anno, which means the last (day) of the year.
Capodanno means head of the year, and it’s the Italian word for New Year’s Day: January 1st, the first day of the year. Italians also use capodanno to talk about the time on December 31st going into January 1st, when we celebrate New Year’s Eve.
ITALIAN NEW YEAR’S: WHAT’S OPEN
On New Year’s Eve most shops are open during the day, but close early. Supermarkets are open, but watch out for early closings. And the crowds . . . supermarkets are notoriously packed with people doing their last minute food shopping for the night’s festivities.
Restaurants that are open for New Year’s Eve dinner usually have a special fixed menu (read more about the New Year’s Eve dinner below).
On the other hand, New Year’s Day is a public holiday and most shops are closed. Some bars and cafes are open. In small towns, at least one bar usually chooses to open for New Year’s Day.
THE ITALIAN WINTER HOLIDAY SEASON: LE FESTE
New Year’s Eve is actually only halfway through a series of holidays between the end of December and the beginning of January.
There is December 25 (Christmas), December 26 (St. Steven’s Day), New Year’s Day (January 1), and the Epiphany, or Befana (January 6), all public holidays. Italian school children have a whopping 2 week winter break, and sometimes it’s even longer depending on which days of the week the holidays fall on.
During this time, Italian small towns and big cities alike have light displays running above and along the main streets. Some Italian towns set up a temporary ice skating rink in the main piazza, special Christmas markets, even a ferris wheel or other fair rides. Store windows and shops inside are all decked out in Christmas decorations.
The hype and fanfare in Italy lasts for at least a month, from the weeks leading up to Christmas, all the way through January 6th.
You may like our post on the Best Times to Visit Italy: Month-by-Month.
RED IS THE COLOR OF NEW YEAR’S EVE IN ITALY
During the Christmas holiday season, shops are filled with all kinds of red clothing. Last but not least are red underwear and intimate apparel.
Indeed, it is an Italian New Year’s Eve tradition to wear red underwear and undergarments for good luck. Some even say that to get the good luck, the underwear must be new and you must only wear it on New Year’s Eve, then throw it away the next day on New Year’s Day. There are also people who say it must be worn inside out on New Year’s Eve, worn right side out on New Year’s Day, and then thrown away!
Eating is a big part of celebrating Italian holidays, and New Year’s is no exception. Even though you still feel full from Christmas and St. Steven’s Day feasts the week before, on New Year’s Eve it’s time to binge . . . I mean feast, again!
Il cenone means the big dinner, or the feast, and it’s almost always the centerpiece of Italians’ New Year’s Eve plans, no matter where they choose to do it. Leading up to New Year’s in Italy, restaurants will advertise their special menus for Il Cenone di San Silvestro (Saint Sylvester dinner) which is usually a bountiful, multiple course fixed price affair.
Often, Italians choose to have il cenone at home with family or friends, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be any smaller or less elaborate. Even when my Italian friends and I were in our carefree twenties, it was normal to have a huge, sit down cenone where everyone brought something. It went without saying that you’d bring a dish you’d cooked yourself, not store bought, and that everyone would be stuffed silly only half way through!
Here are some traditions and features of the New Year’s Eve meal:
LENTILS AND PORK
Lentils are a must at New Year’s: they are supposed to bring you good fortune, and money. This may be because lentils themselves look like little coins.
Lentils are usually served either with zampone, a pig trotter stuffed with spiced pork made in Modena; or cotechino, a pork sausage from northern Italy. Pork is a symbol of abundance, and in the past it was a rare treat for poor Italian peasants.
REGIONAL SPECIALTIES AND TRADITIONS
Where you are celebrating New Year’s in Italy may determine the foods at your New Year’s feast. Regional foods that are said to bring good fortune often make an appearance on New Year’s: risotto (rice brings good luck), legumes, nuts and chili pepper are just a few examples. In Abruzzo, on New Year’s there are the sette minestre di sette legumi: seven soups made with seven different legumes.
Many regional Christmas foods are also served at New Year’s Eve. Two of these are tortellini in brodo (stuffed pasta in broth) and salmon crostini (a finger food made out of a crouton topped with thinly sliced smoked salmon) in parts of northern Italy.
At New Year’s many Italians eat pomegranate seeds, a symbol of fertility and riches. In some areas of southern Italy, people also eat grapes. Grapes are said to bring money, hence the proverb: Chi mangia l’uva per Capodanno conta i quattrini tutto l’anno (If you eat grapes at the New Year, you’ll have money all year).
ITALIAN NEW YEAR’S EVE DESSERTS
Regional Christmas desserts are often also served at New Year’s. In Umbria, there is torciglione, a snake-shaped dessert made of almond flour. In Naples, there are struffoli, small little balls of fried dough covered in honey.
Other places have desserts very similar to struffoli. In areas of central Italy like Le Marche and Abruzzo, there is cicerchiata, and in parts of Calabria and Sicily, there is pignolata.
Pandoro and panettone are two leavened yellow Christmas cakes that have become popular all over Italy, and often make an appearance at the New Year’s Eve table.
Originally from Verona, pandoro means golden bread. It is tall, star shaped, and covered with powdered sugar. Panettone, originally from Milan, is dome shaped. The classic version is a sweet bread dotted with candied fruits and raisins, though today’s bakers experiment with savory versions, as well as different sweet combinations.
There is plenty of toasting to do on New Year’s, so sparkling wine, or spumante, is another must. The cenone will probably start off with a brindisi, or toast, and it will certainly end with one at midnight! There are many wonderful Italian sparkling wines, most notably Prosecco and Franciacorta.
MORE ITALIAN NEW YEAR’S EVE TRADITIONS
In some areas of Italy, it is a tradition to throw old objects out the window. This is taking “out with the old, in with the new” to an extreme! In Naples, for example, it is traditional to break i cocci (dishes like plates and glasses), to send away any bad luck.
IL VEGLIONE: STAYING UP
The time waiting for midnight is called il veglione in Italy. The major Italian tv networks broadcast their New Year’s Eve parties, which each consist of a big show with performances by various musicians and entertainers in a major Italian piazza. You can watch it at home, see it live, or head to the piazza in your own city to countdown until midnight and enjoy all the revelry.
SPARKLING WINE AT MIDNIGHT
A mezzanotte (at midnight) it’s time to kiss everyone you’re with on both cheeks and wish them a Happy New Year! It’s also time for spumante (sparkling wine) and fare il brindisi (make a toast) to ring in a good year. Another tradition is to dip your finger in the spumante and put a drop of it on the back of someone’s ear lobe to give them good luck (Italians do this year round, not just on New Year’s).
FIREWORKS ON NEW YEAR’S EVE IN ITALY
Let the chaos begin! Italians use the word botti (bangs, thuds) to refer to firecrackers and fireworks because of all the noise they make. You’ll hear them throughout the evening, but most of all right after midnight. Go to a rooftop and you’ll see scattered fireworks going off all around you in the distance: people set off their own in the streets and from rooftops.
WHAT TO SAY ON ITALIAN NEW YEAR’S
When toasting and celebrating the New Year in Italy, the most common phrases to say are Auguri! and Buon anno!
Auguri means best wishes! It is a common word to use on holidays and special occasions. Learn more about auguri in Italian.
Buon anno means (Have a) good year! It is used specifically to wish someone a Happy New Year.
If you’re looking for more phrases, read how to say Happy New Year in Italian.
NEW YEAR’S DAY IN ITALY
On New Year’s Day cities and towns are quiet as everyone sleeps off the festivities from the night before. My husband always make sure we have citrosodina in our house. It’s an antacid in a bright yellow container you can buy in the supermarket that helps with digestion.
If you are looking to catch a glimpse of other people, head out for a passeggiata (walk) in the center of town, or try the local bar. While shops are closed on New Year’s Day because it’s a public holiday, some bars are open so people can get their coffee.
It is said that carrying coins, or spiccioli, in your pocket on New Year’s Day will bring you good luck. Same goes for crossing paths with an elderly person, which will lead to a long life; or a person with kyphosis (who has a hunched back), which will lead to good luck.
ITALIAN NEW YEAR’S: CHILDREN
You might be wondering where children fit into all this. Are Italian New Year’s Eve traditions and festivities just for adults? As you may have guessed, absolutely not.
Italian children participate in most of the New Year’s traditions described here. It’s not uncommon to see even very small children eating the cenone at a restaurant.
When they were very little, we stayed home with my boys and didn’t stay up until midnight. But this is mostly because we, the adults, were too tired! And my oldest was scared of the firecrackers. But from the time he was 3, we’ve all been doing the whole shebang, having a big meal and staying up until after midnight with friends.