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Look both ways: January named for Roman god who saw future as well as past


January, or gennaio in Italian, is the first month of the year and is observed as a time of new beginnings as we also reflect on the previous year. The month is named for the Roman god Janus, who is depicted with two faces so he could view both the future and the past.

A longtime tradition in Bologna is the Falò del Vecchione where the effigy of an ancient man is burned on New Year’s Eve in Piazza Maggiore.

Today we all use the Gregorian calendar to mark the passing days and months with the exception of the four countries of Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Nepal. Prior to the reign of Julius Cesear, the calendar in use was based on a lunar year. When Caesar came into power this calendar was three months ahead of the solar year. Working with the astronomer Sosigenes Caesar he ordered a new calendar consisting of 12 months which had a cycle of three years of 365 days, followed by a year of 366 days (leap year). When first implemented, the “Julian Calendar” also moved the beginning of the year from March 1 to Jan. 1. This calendar was then replaced in 1582 on the order of Pope Gregory XIII. It restored the calendar to the seasonal dates of 325 CE, an adjustment of 10 days.

About a century after the beginning of the Roman empire, the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, developed the months of January and February as part of the early Roman calendar. He made January the first month of the year to commemorate the beginnings of the Roman Empire. The first month of the calendar was called Gennaio, a name which originated before the year 1000 from Middle English. It derived from the Latin noun of Jānuārius, equivalent to Jānus.

Zampone di Modena is a pork dish stuffed into the skin of the front leg of the pig traditionally served in some regions on New Year’s Eve.

Janus was also known as the god of beginnings, doorways, gates, transitions, time, duality, passages, and endings. As such he presided over both the beginning and end of conflicts and he had duties related to birth and death, journeys, and trading as well as travels and shipping.

The Romans erected a shrine to Janus on the north side of the Roman Forum which was a simple rectangular bronze construction with double doors at each end. Ancient and modern scholars believe that the doors of this shrine were left open in time of war and were kept closed when Rome was at peace.

Maurizio Palmulli, aka Mr. OK, leads an annual New Year’s tradition in Rome by jumping into the Tiber River.

As the god of doorways, the name Janus is also thought to have evolved into the English word janitor. The word derived from the Latin jānua, meaning “door, doorway, entrance,” and which initially was connected to a door attendant or porter before evolving into the modern word of custodian.The powers of Janus held a special place in religious ceremonies throughout the year. His name was invoked at the beginning of each ceremony even though the event was honoring other deities.

In Italy, Italians prepare for the New Year with the Vigilia di Capodanno. Dec. 31 is the Festa di San Silvestro in honor of Pope Silvestro who was elected to the papacy in 314 A.D. Families and friends will gather for a cenone, or large dinner and the younger generations will often celebrate together by attending concerts which are offered in cities and towns both large and small. Other revelers may choose to attend an opera or theatrical event. In recent years it has also become more acceptable to attend dinners and parties that are hosted in hotels or restaurants.

For the Festa di San Silvestro dinner on New Year’s Eve, many families will make sure to include lentils with cotechino or zampone. Cotechino is an Emilian sausage made of pork, lard, pork rind and spices, which requires cooking and is not encased. Zampone is made with the same ingredients as cotechino but is stuffed into the skin of the front leg of a pig. The fat of the pork symbolizes abundance, and the lentils represent money, because their shape is similar to small money that was used in ancient times.

Also traditionally on the table is la melagrana (a pomegranate) which comes from a sacred plant with ties to Giunone or Juno who was the ancient Roman divinity of marriage and childbirth with connections to Venere (Venus). Its place on the table represents longevity, fertility, and richness.

During the initial stages of Christianity, the Church in Rome celebrated Jan. 1 with a feast that celebrated the Natale or birth of the mother of God. This later became eclipsed by the feasts of the Annunciation and Assumption which were adapted by Constantine at the beginning of the 7th century when it was celebrated as the “eighth day.” It is written in Luke 2:21 that this was the day Mary’s son was named Jesus. In the 13th or 14th century Rome began to celebrate the day as the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord and the Octave of the Nativity. The holiday had gone through several name changes when, in 1969, the revision to an earlier Roman Missal changed it to the Feast of the Solemnity of Mary.

Italians have a number of traditions they practice for New Year’s, some of which are the same as in the United States. Fireworks light up the night skies across Italy to ring in the New Year. The country is known for its beautiful and artistic displays. Zambelli Fireworks is one of the biggest fireworks companies in the world with a history dating back to 1893 and the Grucci family has been in business since 1850.

In recent years fireworks displays in Italy are undergoing transformations with changes made to avoid the risk of fires and also to reduce the stress they cause pets and wild animals. The town of Collecchio outside of Parma passed a law to mandate silent fireworks and many other places have followed suit. In keeping with the times many towns and cities now use drones to create silent but just as beautiful displays.

Of course, Italians will toast the new year with spumante and other bubbly beverages and may also celebrate with un bacio sotto il vischio, a kiss under the mistletoe.

It is also common to light a candle just before midnight and to let it burn completely, which signifies the passage from the old to the new. The candle’s color is also symbolic, a green candle is lit if one wishes to become rich while a white or red candle is used when one is hoping to find love.

Another traditional habit is to open a window in a dark room just before midnight. This allows one to get rid of any evil spirits or negative energy in the house.

Red is traditionally the color of the day when the New Year arrives. This dates as far back as 31 B.C. when people would clothe themselves in red as a symbol of prosperity.

Another way to ring in the New Year is with a large falò or bonfire. Fire is the essence of purification and renewal, and large bonfires are prevalent in the northeastern areas of Italy but also practiced elsewhere in the country. A longtime tradition in Bologna is the Falò del Vecchione where the effigy of an ancient man is burned on New Year’s Eve in Piazza Maggiore. The old man symbolizes the old year, and the flames cancel the bad things of the past in hopes of a better year.

In Rome it has become a custom to greet the New Year with a dive into the Tiber River. This first took place back in 1945 when Rick de Sonay, an adventurous Italian-Belgian, dove into the frigid and turbulent waters of the river from a height of around 59 feet from the marble balustrade of the Ponte Cavour. When he emerged from the river, he gave a signal to indicate he was OK and that became his nickname. He took his last dive in the 1980s but the custom and his nickname was passed on to a faithful disciple Maurizio Palmulli. The former lifeguard, now in his 70s, took his 35th plunge in January 2023 along with several friends. This annual event is watched by many lined along the bridge and others watching below from the river.

Finally, it is customary for Italians to throw out old items as a symbolic gesture of letting go of the past. This is more common in Naples but does happen in other regions as well. Out the window goes old clothes, furniture, dishes, pots, and pans! Those walking below are in the know and will look out for these flying objects.

As Italians celebrate the New Year they will wish each other Buon Anno, Buon Principio, Buon Capodanno or Felice Anno Nuovo. However, and wherever you celebrate, we wish all our readers, friends, and family the same!

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