Italian gastronomy. What do Italians eat for the New Year?
In this weekly column, I will offer you original and historical recipes, thus reconciling two aspects of my person, that of a historian and that of a bistro owner. They will be easy to carry out but above all linked to the history of a territory or great men. Traditional gastronomy tells a land, traditions, it is therefore part of the idea of an identity fight, highlighting the diversities that are dear to us from one region to another, ecological, working with local and seasonal products, and ethics, minimizing waste and opposing the standardized model of fast food.
If you are reading these lines, it means that you survived New Year’s Eve. You may not know it, but the tradition of celebrating this transition from one year to another on the 1er January dates back to the Romans and their way of doing it still influences us in more ways than one. If for a very long time the lunar year began on the Ides of March, thus marking the taking office of the new consuls, in 153 BC, Fulvio Nobiliore, freshly elected head of the Republic, asked to anticipate his taking office in order to to put down a rebellion of the Iberian peoples. He then took office on the first day of the month dedicated to Janus, the two-faced god. This exception then became the rule and it was therefore the assumption of office of the new consul which marked the beginning of the year, all with great reinforcements of celebrations and banquets. The new consul was going to the Capitol to be acclaimed. A white bull was sacrificed there in honor of the god Janus, one face of which looked towards the past year and the other towards the year to come. He was represented carrying a rod and a key giving access to the heavens (as Saint Peter will be among the Christians).
In Italy it is a tradition not to sacrifice a bull but to wear red on New Year’s Eve (either an object, a garment or frequently an undergarment. This tradition once again dates back to the ancient Romans who themselves held it of the Etruscan kings. On the occasion of the new year the Emperor Augustus began to wear a red cloak for celebrations, soon imitated by all senior Roman officers. Red symbolized power, health and fertility. Already the Etruscan kings painted their faces red during ceremonies for Janus, and future Roman brides did the same to honor the goddess Vesta.
On New Year’s Eve, friends and families would gather in homes with the door ajar so the old year could fade away in the dead of night. However, the first day of the year was not a public holiday. We worked in order to symbolically fight against laziness. Janus was offered beans, lentils or Farro. This lentil tradition lives on today. During an Italian New Year’s Eve, at midnight, a dish of lentils accompanied by “Cotechino” is served to the guests. Cotechino is a large sausage to cook, it is boiled for several hours and then served in slices. Lentils symbolize the opulence and luck that one hopes to obtain from the new year.
Despite working the next day, the party lasted all night. There was no lack of wine, according to many sources even slaves were encouraged to celebrate the new year, finishing their tasks earlier than usual in order to honor the gods. Dionysos was invoked, frequently represented in the form of a baby, the god reborn and representing fertility. We toasted to the god of wine while holding a statuette wrapped in swaddling clothes. The god was thus sprinkled with droplets of wine. From this would also come the Italian tradition that when you spill wine, you dip your finger in it and touch your forehead. How not to see a relationship with the child Jesus and our Christmas tradition. It would indeed be to make sacred this Roman tradition that the cult of the nativity was instituted, this several centuries after the death of Jesus.
For the new year, the Romans offered themselves a white vase filled with honey, dates and dried figs. Laurel branches were also offered as a sign of joy and luck. This tradition is still found today in the fact of exchanging gifts.
Happy New Year everyone !
Photo credit: DR
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