St. Sylvester's Day


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St. Sylvester's Day

Sylvester Abend

On December 31 the Roman Catholic Church honors St. Sylvester, a Roman Christian who became pope in 314 and continued in that role until his death in 335. His feast day falls on December 31 and is celebrated in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.

Life and Legends of St. Sylvester

Little is known about Sylvester's life. His tenure as pope took place during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine I. Legend claims that Sylvester played an active role in the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, but historians reject this tale. As Pope Sylvester witnessed the divisions between Christians caused by the rise of Arianism, a doctrine concerning the nature of Christ, he sent two representatives to the Council of Nicea. Convened by Emperor Constantine, the Council debated and rejected Arianism. His feast day was established in 1227 by Pope Gregory IX. At least one writer has suggested that his feast day was placed on December 31 for symbolic reasons. Just as December 31 ushers in a new year, so, too, did the conversion of the emperor Constantine usher in a new epoch in the history of Christianity.

Customs

Since Silvester Abend, or "Sylvester's Eve," is also New Year's Eve, many Germans and Austrians hold late-night parties (see also New Year's Day). In Germany these festive gatherings may include drinking, eating, dancing, singing, and fortune-telling. The traditional method of St. Sylvester's Eve fortune-telling is called Bleigiessen. This technique involves melting a small lump of lead in a spoon held over a candle. The molten lead is cast into a bowl of cold water. It hardens into a distinctive shape which is then interpreted to represent some aspect of one's fortune for the coming year.

In at least one Swiss town - Urnäsch in Appenzell Canton - bands of mummers known as "Silvesterclausen" still parade through the streets in costumes, bells, and headdresses on December 31, as well as on St. Sylvester's Day Old Style, which falls on January 13 (see also Old Christmas Day). They visit homes, yodel three times, and are rewarded with wine by the occupants.

Some of the customs associated with St. Sylvester's Day cannot easily be connected with the life of the saint. In past eras the Germans celebrated St. Sylvester's Day with mumming and noisemaking. In some parts of Austria, a rather sinister figure called Sylvester haunted New Year's Eve gatherings. He wore a grotesque mask, flaxen beard, and a wreath of mistletoe. He lurked in some dark corner until someone foolishly walked under the pine boughs suspended from the ceiling. Then he leaped forward, seized them, and roughly kissed them. At midnight the guests drove him away as the last remnant of the old year. Although this custom bears little association with the saint's life, it can be connected to the saint's name. The name "Sylvester" comes from the Latin word for forest, silva. Nearby forests probably provided the mistletoe associated with the startling Austrian Sylvester.

Further Reading

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1906. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New York: Macmillan, 1979.

Web Site

A site sponsored by German instructor Robert J. Shea, Missouri:

St. Sylvester's Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 31
Where Celebrated: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland
Symbols and Customs: Bells, Pig
Related Holidays: New Year's Eve

ORIGINS

St. Sylvester was Pope in the year 325 C . E ., when the Emperor Constantine declared that the pagan religion of Rome would be replaced by Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. Although it is unclear exactly what role, if any, St. Sylvester played in this important event, he is usually given at least some of the credit for stamping out paganism. A number of European countries-including Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland-observe a holiday on the anniversary of Pope Sylvester's death in 335.

The basis of saint day remembrances-for St. Sylvester and other saints-is found in ancient Roman tradition. On the anniversary of a death, families would share a ritual meal at the grave site of an ancestor. This practice was adopted by Christians who began observing a ritual meal on the death anniversary of ancestors in the faith, especially martyrs. As a result, most Christian saint days are associated with the death of the saint. There are three important exceptions. John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus are honored on their nativities (birthdays). Many who suffered martyrdom are remembered on saint days in the calendars of several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sects.

These remembrances take place in many countries. In Belgium, the last girl or boy to get out of bed on December 31 is nicknamed "Sylvester" and must pay a fine to his or her sisters and brothers-which means that most young people get up very early in the morning on this day. There is a superstition that the young girl who does not finish her work by sunset will not have any marriage prospects in the coming year.

In Switzerland, there is an old folk tradition that the spirits of darkness are out and about on the last night of the year. These demons must be frightened away by ringing BELLS and lashing whips. For centuries men and boys have dressed up as "Sylvesterklause" in costumes made from twigs, mosses, and other natural things. They walk through the countryside, stopping at every farmhouse to yodel a greeting and to receive coins and mulled wine. They perform dances designed to scare off demons and ring the huge bells they carry before moving on to the next house. Because St. Sylvester's Day is also NEW YEAR'S EVE, the Swiss celebrate by lighting bonfires in the mountains and ringing church bells to signal the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new. In some Swiss villages, grain is threshed on specially constructed platforms to ensure a plentiful harvest in the coming year.

In Germany, it is considered lucky to eat the traditional St. Sylvester's Day carp and to keep a few of the fish scales as a New Year's charm.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Bells

The custom of making noise-in this case, by ringing bells-to scare off evil demons can be traced back to very ancient times, long before the arrival of Christianity. The Sylvesterklause who go from house to house on this day in Switzerland wear costumes that include enormous bells, and church bells are rung in every village. In Geneva, Switzerland, a huge crowd gathers in front of the Gothic Cathedral of St. Pierre to listen to the midnight chiming of the bells, especially "La Clémence," believed to be the oldest and most beautiful bell in all of Europe.

Pig

In Austria and Hungary, it is not uncommon in restaurants and cafés for the owner to set a pig loose at midnight on St. Sylvester's Day. Everyone tries to touch it because it is considered a symbol of good luck. In private homes, a pig made of marzipan might be hung from the ceiling or chandelier, with a gold piece placed in its mouth to symbolize the wish for wealth. At midnight, everyone touches the pig for good luck. In Vienna, people sometimes lead young pigs by pink satin leashes along fashionable city streets on St. Sylvester's Day.

FURTHER READING

Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.

WEB SITE

St. Anthony Messenger Press www.americancatholic.org/Features/SaintOfDay/default.asp?id=1246

St. Sylvester's Day

December 31
St. Sylvester (d. 335) was pope in the year 325, when Emperor Constantine declared that the pagan religion of Rome was abolished and that Christianity would henceforth be the official religion of the Empire. Although it is unclear exactly what role, if any, St. Sylvester played in this important event, he is always given at least some of the credit for stamping out paganism.
Because St. Sylvester's Day is also New Year's Eve, it is celebrated in Switzerland by lighting bonfires in the mountains and ringing church bells to signal the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new. It is a day for rising early, and the last to get out of bed or to reach school are greeted with shouts of "Sylvester!" In some Swiss villages, grain is threshed on specially constructed platforms to ensure a plentiful harvest in the coming year ( see also Old Silvester).
St. Sylvester's Eve is celebrated in Austria, Hungary, and Germany. It is not uncommon in restaurants and cafes for the owner to set a pig loose at midnight. Everyone tries to touch the pig because it is considered a symbol of good luck. In private homes, a marzipan pig may be hung from the ceiling and touched at midnight.
SOURCES:
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 868
BkFest-1937, pp. 36, 49, 141, 176, 323, 347
BkHolWrld-1986, Jan 13
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 325
DictDays-1988, pp. 23, 36, 125
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 690
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 21, 84, 242
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 780
OxYear-1999, p. 540
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 48

St. Sylvester's Day (Madeira)
December 31
In many European countries, December 31, in addition to New Year's Eve, is also the observance of St. Sylvester's Day, the feast day of Pope Sylvester (314-335). In Madeira, a group of eight Portuguese islands off the northwest coast of Africa, one of the world's most impressive fireworks displays takes place on the evening of this day, which is known as the Great Festival of St. Sylvester. The noise of the fireworks resounds over the Bay of Funchal, the islands' capital, where oceanliners make a special stop so that passengers can watch the celebrations.
CONTACTS:
Portuguese National Tourist Office
590 Fifth Ave., 4th Fl.
New York, NY 10036
800-767-8842 or 212-354-4403; fax: 212-764-6137
www.visitportugal.com
SOURCES:
FestEur-1961, p. 135