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NEW YEAR

Here’s why Italians eat lentils on New Year’s Eve

Toasting the arrival of New Year with champagne is nice, sure. But after the stroke of midnight, you may find Italians are more interested in eating dishes of lentils. Here’s why.

Here's why Italians eat lentils on New Year’s Eve
Lenticchie con cotechino (lentils with pork sausage) are a New Year delicacy in Italy. Photo: Flickr/Edsel_

With coronavirus restrictions in place again across Italy this New Year’s Eve, it’s going to be a quieter one than usual. But luckily, an Italian NYE party is easy enough to recreate at home.

To make it authentic, you need only three key ingredients: Prosecco, cheesy disco music, and steaming heaps of lentils.

As dishes of lentils are handed out to partygoers just before the countdown, any new arrival to Italy would be forgiven for wondering what’s going on.

READ ALSO: Panettone or pandoro: Which is the best Italian Christmas cake?

Lentils, or lenticchie, are believed to bring good luck in Italy, and eating them at New Year – shortly after midnight – is a tradition that’s said to date back to ancient Rome.

To wish friends luck and prosperity in the New Year, ancient Romans would give a pouch full of lentils as a gift. The coin-shaped legumes, which increase in size when cooked, were believed to represent ​​abundance.

The tradition is still popular today – so much so that lentils of all shapes and sizes are usually sold out in Italian supermarkets by December 31st.

READ ALSO: Why you shouldn’t suck prawn heads during an Italian Christmas feast 

Particularly in northern Italy, lenticchie con cotechino is the traditional dish served after midnight. Cotechino is a type of slow-cooked, spiced pork sausage. It’s a hearty and warming dish perfect for a cold winter’s night.

For even more good luck, some people serve lentils with zampone. Another speciality of northern Italy, this is a whole, boned pig’s trotter stuffed with the gelatinous part of the trotter and pork meat. 

So is that part of the traditional dinner on New Year’s Eve? Sometimes – more often on New Year’s Day, as the lentils are meant to be eaten once the New Year begins.

But even if lentils featured on your NYE dinner menu, you’ll get more of them later if you’re at any sort of formal event. This midnight snack is to be eaten shortly after you’ve finished your four-course meal (naturally, Italian New Year’s Eve parties are more about eating than drinking or dancing.)

Regardless of how much you’ve already eaten, you’ll need to find room for plenty of lentils. The more lentils you eat, the luckier you’ll be in the coming year. And we could all use some extra luck in 2021.

Member comments

  1. I lived near Castelnuovo Rangone, which boasts a festival with the world’s largest zampone. This is in Modena province. Zampone is definitely an acquired taste.
    Auguri!!

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CHRISTMAS

Ten Christmas nativity scenes you’ll only see in Italy

Creative nativity scenes appear in homes, churches and public buildings across Italy in December, each one a little different. How many of these have you seen?

Handmade nativity figures for sale on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, often called 'Christmas Alley'.
Handmade nativity figures for sale on Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, often called 'Christmas Alley'.. Photo: Carlo Hermann/AFP

1. The world’s largest

Let’s start with the world’s largest nativity scene, in Cinque Terre. Each year, the picturesque town of Manarola in the Liguria tourist spot is illuminated with over 15,000 lights – a tradition which began back in 1961 with a single cross.

The nativity scene today features than 150 statues illuminated using 8km of electrical cable.

IN PHOTOS: Magical nativity scene lights up Italy’s Cinque Terre coast

The Manarola nativity scene in Italy’s Cinque Terre. Photo: Marco Bertorello / AFP

2. The Vatican’s version

You might expect the scene set up in Piazza San Pietro to be the most traditional of all, but in recent years it has held surprises.

The Vatican’s nativity also now includes a QR code that takes visitors to a video about the Christmas story. There’s even a special Wifi hotspot so visitors don’t have to use up their data.

Some things never change, though: as per tradition, the baby Jesus will be added to the scene by the pope himself on Christmas Eve.

Pope Francis in front of a classic nativity scene in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican in 2013. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP

3. Neapolitan style

No one does nativities quite like Naples. Head to the city’s “Christmas Alley”, Via San Gregorio Armeno, for a glimpse into the workshops that turn out many of the crib figures displayed all over Italy.

Among the usual characters, look out for fishmongers, butchers, pizza makers and other figures that have made their way into Neapolitan Christmas tradition – not to mention the pop stars, footballers politicians and other public figures that craftsmen slip in there too.

IN PICTURES: A weird and wonderful Christmas in Naples

A winged Diego Maradona figurine on Via San Gregorio Armeno, Naples. Photo: Carlo Hermann/AFP

4. Living nativities

You might do a double take when you first see one of Italy’s presepi viventi – they are made up of real people in character. And rather than being a small display, these theatrical productions are often staged across an entire town centre.

There are several living nativities across the country, but perhaps the most famous one is found in the southern Italian city of Matera, known for its ancient cave houses and magical landscape. Walking through a 5km route through the sassi, or old town, visitors pass shepherds and artisans who will direct them to the actual crib.

5. A used-car nativity

Hey, why not. This one can be seen at Rome’s annual 100 Presepi exhibition, displaying nativities of all materials and sizes from around the world.

6. An edible version

You definitely shouldn’t tuck into the nativity scene in Olmedo, Sardinia – but you could. The elaborate figures on display at the ‘presepe di pane‘ in the church of Nostra Signore di Talia are made entirely of bread. 

7. On the water

The “floating nativities” of port town Cesenatico, Emilia-Romagna, are the only ones of their kind in the world. The boats display around 50 life-size statues throughout December, portraying a scene typical of the fishing village. Each year a new statue is added, and at night, lights bring the whole scene to life.

A floating nativity scene in Cesenatico. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

8. …and under it

Head to Laveno-Mombello on Lombardy’s Lago Maggiore for a look at a sunken nativity scene. The sight of the holy family – plus some seashells and palm trees – submerged in the waters of the lake makes for a surprising, but undeniably scenic, view.

9. Made of sand

In Jesolo near Venice, a nativity scene made entirely of sand – some 1,500 tonnes of it – is created each year with a different theme. For 2021’s edition, the sand sculpture is dedicated to Italy’s health workers and their efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Photo: christopher_brown/Flickr

10. Made of ice

Several (presumably colder) Italian towns instead sculpt their nativity scenes from ice. Massa Martana, a village in the province of Perugia, is one place where you can see life-sized figures carved from huge blocks of ice and dramatically illuminated.