St. Sylvester’s Day
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.
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.