Why on earth do Germans call New Year’s Eve Silvester?

Why do Germans call New Year's Eve Silvester? And what's with all the mustard-filled doughnuts, firecrackers, and melted lead? The Local has the lowdown.

New Year's Eve at the Brandenburg gate, Berlin.
New Year's Eve at the Brandenburg gate, Berlin. Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

No, your friend isn’t planning to ring in the New Year with someone named Silvester 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 31th.

READ ALSO: The German words and phrases you need to know to survive the holidays

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 31th.

Fireworks on Silvester at Stuttgart’s Schlossplatz in 2017. Photo: DPA

Hairy and smoky nights

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 5th.

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-synchronize. 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.

From fire to fireworks

One of the most famous German firework displays takes place at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Private celebrations with Böllern (firecrackers) are also common, even though surveys show Germans are divided about their use for safety and environmental reasons.

READ ALSO: Majority of Germans back New Year’s Eve fireworks ban

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.

Foretelling the future

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 5th, 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, even though the practice was officially banned in 2018 after EU law declared the practice dangerous.

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.

A tamer tradition

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.

Freddie Frinton as butler James in Dinner for One. Photo: Annemarie Aldag/NDR/DPA

READ ALSO: ‘Germans have kept it alive’: Dinner for One’s star’s son on the enduring legacy of a Silvester favourite

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!

A version of this article was originally published in 2012.

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Five European cities you can reach in under five hours from Frankfurt

Frankfurt's not just a bustling international city - it's also a great location from which to explore Europe. Here's our guide to the best cities you can visit in under five hours simply by hopping on a train from Germany's banking capital.

Five European cities you can reach in under five hours from Frankfurt

With nine diverse nations sharing a border with Germany, it’s not hard to get out and explore new parts of Europe – even if it’s just for a couple of days. And there’s no better way to do this than by taking advantage of the fast and extensive train network in and around the country. 

Though train fares may not be quite as a cheap as a budget airline ticket, opting for train travel is generally a quicker and much more pleasant way to travel. 

For one, you can avoid the luggage chaos and endless queues that have been plaguing Europe’s airports over the past few months.

Secondly, you can often get a much more comfy and spacious seat on a long-distance train, and even surf the internet and work on your journey (if the Wifi works). And, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy whiling away an hour or so in the dining car, sipping coffee and watching the world go by? 

If you’re lucky enough to live in Frankfurt, you’re in a prime location to access a number of Germany’s neighbouring countries by train. From the central station, you can even reach some famous destinations in well under five hours, which is ideal for a short break or weekend away. 

To help you plan your trip, we’ve picked five unmissable locations that are closer to Frankfurt than you may think. Here are some reasons to visit each of them, and how you can get there.

READ ALSO: UPDATED: The best websites for cross-Europe train travel


Zurich city centre

Zurich city centre. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/KEYSTONE | Ennio Leanza

For residents of Frankfurt – the financial capital of Germany – visiting another big banking city may seem counter-intuitive. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to plan a trip to Zurich beyond its business credentials.

Nestled above sweeping Lake Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city has all the cultural attractions you’d expect from a major European hub. But with just over 400,000 residents, it also has something of a small-town feel. 

For art fans, the Kunsthaus Zurich is well worth a visit, and anyone who wants to learn about Switzerland’s fascinating history should also take a trip to the National Museum. Of course, no visit to Switzerland would be complete without chocolate, so be sure to stop by the magnificent Lindt Home of Chocolate, which houses the largest Lindt shop in the world. 

If you go to Zurich in winter, there are also countless ski resorts nearby, making it the ideal place to spend a night or two before hitting the slopes.

You can get there in just under four hours on the IC73 or IC77, or by taking an ICE train to Basel and switching to an IC or ICE train in Switzerland. If you book well in advance, it’s possible to get one-way tickets for around €20, while last-minute tickets are likely to cost around €40-60.  


Paris skyline

The Paris skyline. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Ute Müller

If you’re looking for a romantic weekend away, there’s no better destination than the so-called City of Love. With its famous chalkstone buildings, wrought-iron balcony and leafy boulevards, Paris exudes a romantic atmosphere that’s a joy to soak up, even on a cold autumnal day. 

No visit to the French capital would be complete without seeing famous sights like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, but it’s also worth rubbing shoulders with the local in its bustling bistros and candlelit wine bars. 

Literary lovers should also stop by Shakespeare and Company: an iconic English-language bookshop located on the bohemian Left Bank. Alternatively, see some of the greatest artistic masterpieces in the world at the Louvre or Musée de l’Orangerie

You can get from Frankfurt to Paris in just 3 hours and 45 minutes by taking a TGV train to Gare de L’Est, a train station in the east of Paris. You can find single tickets for around €45 if you book in advance, but €80 is more realistic for last-minute bookings. 

READ ALSO: ‘Deutschlandticket’: What you need to know about Germany’s new €49 ticket


Brussels City Hall and Grand Place

Brussels City Hall and Grand Place lit up in rainbow colours. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Olivier Hoslet

As the home of the European Parliament, Brussels needs no introduction – but there’s much more to the capital of Belgium than EU politics. 

If you pay a visit, be sure to spend some time on foot soaking up the stunning gothic architecture in the city, from the breathtaking Grand Place to the imposing Palace of Justice. If you’ve never been to Paris, you can also visit another famous church by the name of Notre Dame, which was built way back in the 15th century and extended with two new chapels in the 17th century. 

For a more modern – and even futuristic – attraction, a visit to the Atomium is also a must. This mindboggling feat of architecture is by the far the most popular attraction in Belgium. Part building, part sculpture, the enormous structure is shaped like an iron unit cell, or nine iron atoms. Visitors can peruse exhibitions inside it, eat in the restaurant and take in the best views in the city. 

Of course, a tour of the EU parliament should be on your to-do list, and don’t forget to enjoy a tipple (or two) at the aptly-named Delirium Cafe, which has over 2,000 beers on the menu.

To reach Brussels from Frankfurt, you can hop on the direct IC14, which will take you to the Belgian capital in just three hours. Book several weeks in advance to snap up one-way tickets for around €20. Closer to your travel date, a single will set you back between €50 and €80 on average. 


Amsterdam canal bridge

The UNESCO protected canals of Amsterdam. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Andrea Warnecke

With its winding canal ways and buzzing nightlife, a weekend trip to Amsterdam should be on everyone’s bucket list – and for people in Frankfurt, it takes less time than it would to get to Berlin.

When they think of the Dutch capital, foreigners often think of the city’s famous “coffee shops” – special licensed cafes where weed is sold. But Amsterdam is much more than just a stoner’s paradise: it’s home to world-famous music venues, quirky breweries and even the largest flea market in Europe.

Anyone there for a couple of days would do well to hire a bicycle and head out to some of Amsterdam’s must-see attractions, from the Van Gogh Museum to the Royal Palace. A boat tour along the city’s UNESCO-protected canals is also a great way to explore the city: learning about Amsterdam’s history while soaking up the lively atmosphere along the waterfront at sunset is a truly special experience. And if it’s local art and trendy cafes you’re looking for, head to the Bohemian district of Jordaan or Westergas, a former industrial complex that is now a thriving cultural hub.

To get from Frankfurt to Amsterdam, just hop on the direct ICE126, which will bring you door to door in just four hours. You can snap up one-way tickets for around €28 if you book at least a month in advance, while last-minute single tickets will be around €50-80. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Germany’s long-distance train services will change from December

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City. Photo: picture alliance / dpa-tmn | Bernd F. Meier

The capital of Luxembourg may be much smaller than other European capitals, but it more than makes up for it in history and charm.

This quaint medieval city is built along deep gorges and surrounded by rivers and hills, making it arguably one of the most picturesque cities in Europe. Public transport in Luxembourg is entirely free for both visitors and residents, but the size of the city means that it’s perfectly possible to explore on foot.

While you’re there, don’t forgot to take an obligatory photo or ten while walking along the Chemin de la Corniche (or the path of Corniche), which has been described as Europe’s most beautiful balcony. You can also learn all about Luxembourg’s fascinating history and culture at one of the seven museums that make up the “Museums Mile”, and peruse local shops and galleries at the historic Fëschmaart (or fish market). 

Though it may have a distinctly small-town feel to it, Luxembourg is also a hugely international and cosmopolitan place, so you’re sure to meet people from all over the world while enjoying some traditional Luxembourgish fare at a local bar or eatery. (In case you’re wondering, it’s kind of a hodgepodge of French, Belgian, German and Italian food…). 

The quickest route to Luxembourg from Frankfurt takes just 3.5 hours. Simply hop on the TGV train to Paris Est and change to the L40 train at Saarbrücken. It’s not hard to find one-way tickets for a bargain price of €22, even if you forget to book in advance. 

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Frankfurt with the €9 ticket