Monday, December 31, 2018

Seventh Day of Christmas -
"Silvester" is "Old Year's Day"

It's not the day most people will be celebrating today, but the night. Still, there's a lot we can learn from delving into the roots of the twelve days of Christmas—the seventh, in particular. Designated, in some church calendars, as the feast day of Pope Sylvester I, ever since the Gregorian calendar set December 31 as the last day of the year, it has also been celebrated as New Year's Eve.

If you remember running outside at the stroke of midnight, grabbing pots and pans and banging them with the kitchen spoon, your celebration style for Silvester may have German roots. On the other hand, if you set the day aside to pay all your debts and tidy your affairs—not to mention, clean all the ashes out of your fireplace and get the day's baking done early—perhaps you are preparing to celebrate Hogmanay in the traditional Scottish long as you insure that the first one to set foot in the house, after the stroke of midnight on the first day of the year, is a tall, dark stranger.

Perhaps the custom of feast days falling (usually) on the anniversary of a saint's day of death can be thought more colloquially as a coming together to re-enact the traditional dinner following the funeral of a loved one. At least, that's the best way this non-Catholic can equate "celebrating" the death (in some cases, at the hands of brutal murderers) of an important person.

In the case of Saint Sylvester, who served as Pope concurrent with the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, his feast day has been designated as the anniversary of his burial in the Catacomb of Priscilla. As that day now falls—at least since 1582—on the last day of the year, the name of his feast day has actually become synonymous with New Year's Eve. At least, that is the case in Austria (ever walked a pig on a leash for Silvester?), several eastern European countries, and especially in Germany.

To direct how to celebrate the day (and the night!) would be impossible. The entire world has provided us numerous variations on the tradition—a telling way to clue you in to which part of your ethnic roots held sway over the generations. The Germans have apparently been doing so, big time, since Pope Sylvester's burial on December 31, 335. Yes, this, again, is a tradition having its roots in the Middle Ages.

Or is it? According to many historians, not only New Year's Eve, but the entire span of the Twelve Days of Christmas, has its roots in ethnic customs pre-dating the advent of Christianity in the European continent. The German culture, in particular, claims this tradition as an outgrowth of their own, dating before the advent of Christianity in Germanic tribes. Perhaps this is a clearer explanation for the affinity, during this season, with boisterous celebrations and fireworks.

Though I have yet to meet anyone who celebrates the day by switching out the jelly for mustard in their "jelly donuts," the German tradition brings us many distinguishing ways to celebrate Silvester. If you celebrate the day—or the night, tonight—watch what festivities are brought your way by friends and family. These activities may show you more about your (genealogical) past than foretell your future.


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