The Local Lowdown

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

People with a lit-up sparklers reading 2020 at last year's Silvester in Oldenburg. Photo: DPA
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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.