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Most Googled: Why is New Year's Eve called Silvester in Germany?

Most Googled: Why is New Year's Eve called Silvester in Germany?

To most of us English-speaking people, the last night of the year is known as New Year’s Eve. However, in Germany, this night is known as "Silvester". What does this mean and where did this German word come from? Find out in this special end of year edition of Most Googled!

Silvester: Saint or fun night out?

For most people outside of Germany, the name Silvester undoubtedly conjures up images of a certain Hollywood actor, or maybe of the adorable cat from the Looney Tunes that is constantly trying (and failing) to capture Tweety the Canary. However, in Germany, Silvester is used to refer to New Year’s Eve, and for most Germans, evokes images of a sky being lit up by fireworks, friends and a raucous good time. So, why do Germans refer to New Year’s Eve as Silvester? Well, it’s actually rather simple.

Pope Silvester I (also spelt Sylvester) was the bishop of Rome in the fourth century AD. A contemporary of Constantine the Great, he served in his post during a very important era of Western Christianity. He was bishop at the First Council of Nicaea (although he did not actually attend in person), during which the Nicene Creed was formulated and adopted. In case you're not familiar with it, the Nicene Creed was a defining guide on mainstream Christianity, which had been adopted by the Roman Empire under Constantine. Silvester also oversaw the construction of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome and the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Pope Silvester was bestowed sainthood after his death, with his feast day being promulgated on the day of his death - December 31. When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in 1582 to make up for the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar, the last day of the year was set on December 31, thereby making Saint Silvester’s Feast Day coincide with New Year’s Eve - from which we get the German word. 

Germany’s hairy and smoky nights

While the above may explain why Germans refer to New Year’s Eve as Silvester, it does not explain why certain traditions are observed on this day - traditions like fireworks, lead pouring and, bizarrely, not doing the laundry. These traditions actually stem from Germanic tribes, who observed the twelve Rauhnächte or Rauchnächte: nights that, due to there being a 12-night difference between the solar and lunar year, fell out of time. These nights ran from midnight on December 25 to midnight on January 5. As you can probably guess from the dates, these Rauhnächte coincide with the 12 days of Christmas.

Rauhnächte or Rauchnächte are usually translated as “smoky” or “hairy” nights, with the interpretation of “hairy” coming from the Middle High German word, rûch. There are several reasons why they could be referred to as this. “Hairy” could refer to the demons that were believed to stalk the earth during this time, while “smoky” could refer to the practice of smoking the demons out of one’s home, something which was usually done on the last Rauhacht.

During these nights, wild spirits, the undead and the dreaded Wild Hunt (Wilde Jagd), a deathly procession of demons, were led by the god-king Wotan. These grim creatures brought about human suffering, plague, war and death. So, in order to scare them away, the Germanic tribes would make loud noises however they could. They would also light wooden wheels on fire and set them rolling down hills, and hit trees with flaming clubs. Maybe this was another way of scaring off the evil spirits, or perhaps it was a way of begging the sun to return, which they believed had left them during these dark nights. Either way, these practices eventually morphed into the tradition of setting off fireworks that we still observe today.

Other New Year’s Eve traditions in Germany

The Germanic tribes of old believed that the sun slowed to a stop during this period of lost nights, due to their belief that the sun was actually a wheel that rolled around the earth. This phenomenon is what led us to the modern-day German tradition of taking it easy around New Year’s, as the belief is people should be still, like everything else on earth at the time. In this same vein, don’t even think about doing laundry during the Rauhnächte, lest Wotan and his Wild Hunt get caught in the washing lines and unleash their fury upon you. White sheets can also be used to cover undead creatures, making it easier for them to get to you.

Given the mystical nature of the Rauhnächte, it will come as no surprise to learn that this was a time when many believed the future could be revealed to them. This has manifested itself in the German tradition of Bleigießen (lead pouring). This is when small lead figurines are placed on a spoon and melted over a candle. The molten metal is then poured into cold water, where it hardens into a new shape. This new shape reveals a meaning for the new year - for example, an eagle represents success, whilst a flower denotes the beginning of new friendships. Just pray that your figure isn’t an owl, as that means you’re going to need glasses!

It should be noted, however, that the practice of Bleigießen has been officially banned by the EU, as handling lead is pretty dangerous. However, other materials are often used as an alternative.

Tell us about your New Year's traditions

There are plenty of other New Year’s traditions that can be found all throughout Germany. They might not be directly related to Saint Silvester or the Rauhnächte but they are still observed today nonetheless. Some of our favourites include filling jelly doughnuts with mustard or watching the British comedy “Dinner for One” on television. What's your favourite tradition for the holidays? Let us know in the comments below!

William Nehra

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William Nehra

William studied a masters in Classics at the University of Amsterdam. He is a big fan of Ancient History and football, particularly his beloved Watford FC.

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