• Germany's news in English
 
The Local Lowdown
Celebrating Silvester in Germany
Photo: DPA

Celebrating Silvester in Germany

Published: 31 Dec 2012 09:30 GMT+01:00

No your friend isn't planning to ring in the New Year with someone named Sylvester instead of you. Silvester is the German name for New Year's Eve – owing to the fourth century Pope Sylvester I. Eventually made a saint by the Catholic Church, his feast day is observed on December 31.

St. Sylvester’s day became associated with New Year's Eve with the reform of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, when the last day of the year was fixed at December 31. But despite the holiday's Christian name, many German New Year's traditions can be traced back to the pagan Rauhnächte practices of heathen Germanic tribes, which took place at the end of December and beginning of January.

Instead of recognizing a single day as the winter solstice, the Germanic tribes observed twelve Rauhnächte – hairy nights, so called due to the furry forms of the deep winter demons – or Rauchnächte – smoky nights, due to the practice of smoking the spirits out of one’s house on January 5. Bringing very little sun to the northern regions, the twelve Rauhnächte were considered days outside of time, when the solar and lunar years were allowed to re-synchronise. Silvester took place right in the middle of the twelve Rauhnächte and was the night of the god Wotan’s wild hunt, a time of particular commotion and celebration.

As in many other countries, the Germans celebrate Silvester with fireworks, champagne, and boisterous social gatherings. Making noise is key: the ruckus of fireworks, firecrackers, drums, whip-cracking and banging kitchen utensils has been driving away evil winter spirits since the days of the Germanic Teutons. One of the most famous German firework displays takes place at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Private celebrations with Böllern (firecrackers) are also common.

Besides being a fun spectacle, the light of pyrotechnic displays also provides a surrogate sun during the dark Silvester night. Suffering the winter bleakness in their northern regions more than anyone, the Teutons feared that the sun, which they thought of as a wheel that rolled around the earth, was slowing to a stop during the darkest days of winter. Perhaps as a sign of protest, they lit wooden wheels on fire and sent them rolling down mountains and clubbed trees with flaming cudgels. These practices are likely forerunners to the Silvester firework tradition.

The belief that the sun was slowing to a stop also led to the German tradition of doing no work on New Year’s Eve: everything should stand just as still on earth. Above all no one should do any laundry, because the god Wotan made his rounds with his army of devils for a wild hunt during Silvester and would be terribly angry if he got caught in any clotheslines.

Because the twelve Rauhnächte – now associated with the twelve days of Christmas made famous by the partridge in a pear tree – were days outside of time, all manner of supernatural events were possible. Spirits of all sorts charged through the night, either embodying the horror of winter or chasing it away. These figures still emerge in the Perchtenläufen of the Alpine areas of Germany, when troll-like forms cavort about with bells to drive away winter. Perchtenläufen take place in different Alpine cities between Advent and January 5, the last of the Rauhnächte.

The Rauhnächte were also a time when the future for the New Year could be divined. Silvester in Germany still calls for oracle traditions, which often take the form of party games. Bleigießen (lead pouring) is the most popular Silvester fortune-telling tradition. Party-goers melt small lead forms with a candle in an old spoon and pour them into cold water. The lead hardens into a shape that supposedly bears a certain meaning for the New Year. An eagle, for example, indicates career success, while a flower foretells that new friendships will develop.

Other oracle traditions on Silvester include swinging a pendulous object, such as a necklace or watch, and asking it a yes-or-no question. If the pendulum swings in a circle, the answer is “yes,” if it swings vertically, the answer is “no,” and if it swings horizontally, the answer is uncertain. Bibelstechen involves opening the Bible to a random page, closing one’s eyes and pointing to a random verse. The verse should provide some information or advice for the coming year.

Those who stay home on Silvester in Germany are likely to be watching the 1963 TV recording of the British comedy sketch “Dinner for one”. The programme is an indispensable German New Year's tradition since 1972 and holds the Guinness record for being the most frequently repeated TV show in history.

Anyone in front of the telly will probably be wolfing down jelly doughnuts too. But watch out! At some point some Teutonic jokester thought it would be funny to put mustard in one or two of the Pfannkuchen as a funny surprise for his New Year's party guests.

For those who go out on Silvester, good luck charms and New Year’s greetings are often exchanged. Acquaintances may give good luck charms to each other in the form of ladybugs, four-leaf clovers, horseshoes and pigs. The phrase Guten Rutsch! is another common Silvester greeting. While many Germans now use it to wish someone a good “slide” into the new year, the word Rutsch more likely comes from the Yiddish word Rosch – which means beginning or head.

So to have a Guten Rutsch! is simply to have a good start to the New Year!

Elizabeth Norgard (news@thelocal.de)

Today's headlines
Networks scramble to patch mobile security
Chancellor Angela Merkel has herself been the victim of phone hacking. Photo: DPA

Networks scramble to patch mobile security

IT experts led by Berlin-based Karsten Nohl said on Thursday they had discovered security flaws in the mobile phone networks that would allow attackers to read users' messages. READ  

Turkish 'spies' arrested at Frankfurt airport
Photo: DPA

Turkish 'spies' arrested at Frankfurt airport

Three men suspected of being Turkish agents have been arrested by police, federal prosecutors said on Thursday. READ  

Tax take jumps 7.3 percent in November
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is having an excellent month. Photo: DPA

Tax take jumps 7.3 percent in November

Germany collected 7.3 percent more in tax in November 2014 than the same month last year thanks to the strengthening economy, the Finance Ministry said in its monthly report on Thursday, while pollsters found rising consumer confidence. READ  

Ramelow bunks off his first Bundesrat sitting
Bodo Ramelow looking low on energy at a sitting of the Thuringia state parliament. Photo: DPA

Ramelow bunks off his first Bundesrat sitting

Controversial new Thuringia minister-president Bodo Ramelow of the Left (Linke) party missed his first session of Germany's second house of parliament, the Bundesrat, to go on holiday with his family. READ  

'Wrong but legal' claims child porn case ex-MP
Edathy preparing to face questions in Berlin Photo: DPA

'Wrong but legal' claims child porn case ex-MP

A former rising star of German politics who resigned after pictures of naked children were allegedly found on his official laptop said Thursday what he did was "wrong, but legal." READ  

This week in history
A Brandt name to relaunch a country
Willy Brandt being sworn into office in 1972 Photo: DPA

A Brandt name to relaunch a country

We know him as Willy Brandt - but that was just a pseudonym the former chancellor took to avoid the Nazis. READ  

10,000 evacuated after WWII bomb find
A similar bomb defused in Potsdam in September 2013. Photo: DPA

10,000 evacuated after WWII bomb find

Local authorities evacuated some 10,000 people from central Potsdam after an unexploded Second World War bomb was found on a building site. READ  

Sunny outlook for business this winter
Photo: DPA

Sunny outlook for business this winter

German business confidence rose in December on the back of falling oil prices and a weak euro, the Ifo economic institute said Thursday, as the prospects for Europe's biggest economy grew sunnier. READ  

Merkel says Russia sanctions 'unavoidable'
Photo: DPA

Merkel says Russia sanctions 'unavoidable'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Thursday that sanctions against Russia remain "unavoidable" until Ukraine regains its sovereignty and independence. READ  

Reus fined €540k for no driving licence
Photo: DPA

Reus fined €540k for no driving licence

Germany and Dortmund football star Marco Reus was hit by a €540,000 fine Thursday, after state prosecutors in Dortmund confirmed he has been driving for years without a licence. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Willy Brandt at his inauguration in 1972. Photo: DPA
National
Willy Brandt: the man, the chancellor... the airport?
Dresden skyline and river by night. Photo: DPA
Politics
What does Dresden have against Muslims?
Sponsored Article
Why are these International Baccalaureate students cheering?
Germany's national football team lifts the World Cup trophy
Gallery
Germany's most-Googled words of 2014
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
Photo: DPA
National
This German was abducted and tortured by the CIA
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Sponsored Article
Top ten gifts for an expat Christmas
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Culture
Stuff your face with these festive German cookies
Photo: DPA
Culture
What do beer, breakfast cereal and dildos have in common?
Culture
The Local's guide to German Christmas markets
Sponsored Article
Top five quirky Christmas jumpers
Photo: DPA
Culture
Get ready for Christmas like a German. We tell you how.
Photo: DPA
Munich
She did what with her dead mother?
Photo: DPA
National
Germany still paying for crisis fall out
Photo: DPA
Culture
Saxon wurst is the worst, Christmas market declares.
Photo: DPA
Politics
Can 'sorry' ever be enough for the Linke?
Sponsored Article
Shop Christmas gifts at Debenhams international store
Photo: DPA
Berlin
The Local's series on 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall
Shutterstock
Sponsored Article
Offer: Unlimited airmiles through December 19th
Photo: DPA
Gallery
See how Berlin has changed in 22 photos
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,194
jobs available
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists.
Details and how to apply
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd