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THE LOCAL LOWDOWN

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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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GERMANY EXPLAINED

Everything you need to know about Germany’s Oktoberfest

Munich is gearing up to host Oktoberfest after a two-year pandemic break. We look at some facts about the world-famous celebration, how much beer will cost and why it's expected to attract a record amount of Americans this year.

Everything you need to know about Germany's Oktoberfest

Whats happening?

Germany’s world famous Oktoberfest, which attracts millions of visitors from all over the world, was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But it’s returning this Saturday, September 17th, and will run until October 3rd. 

How long has Oktoberfest been celebrated?

The first Wiesn took place in 1810. At that time, the festivities began on October 17th. However, the festival was moved to September in 1872 due to weather conditions and, since then, Oktoberfest always starts on the Saturday after September 15th.

The event started out as a celebration of Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I, who married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The people of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the royal event. The fields were named Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s fields”) in honour of the Crown Princess, although locals have since abbreviated the name to the Wiesn.

The following year, the Bavarian Agricultural Association decided to continue holding the festival. It subsequently became an established part of the annual calendar. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s Oktoberfest to return in 2022

How many visitors go to Oktoberfest?

In 1985, over seven million people attended the event, securing a record at the Theresienwiese. The average number of visitors is just over six million. At the last Wiesn in 2019, 6.3 million people came, drank beer and ate hearty food. 

People drink beer at Oktoberfest in Munich in 2019.

People ‘Prost’ with their beer at Oktoberfest in Munich in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Matthias Balk

Where do guests come from?

Although there are plenty of smaller regional folk festivals that take place, Oktoberfest is enjoyed by people from all over Germany – especially Bavaria.

And due to its sheer size and popularity, tourists flock from all over the world to the Bavarian capital. 

READ ALSO: Why Oktoberfest is one of Germany’s worst beer festivals 

According to travel agency Expedia, in 2019 the top cities of origin for foreign Oktoberfest visitors included London, Rome and Amsterdam. 

However, Expedia expects a significant shift in markets this year, according to a new analysis.

A particularly large number of guests from the United States are expected at Wiesn 2022 – mainly due to the strong US dollar, which makes travel worthwhile for US residents.

“Even before the pandemic, many US Americans travelled to Munich on the occasion of Oktoberfest,” explained Expedia spokeswoman Susanne Dopp.

“This year, however, they are not only coming from cities on the east coast – also many west coasters are seizing the opportunity.

“The strong dollar makes the trip to Europe affordable.”

According to a study, many visitors to Oktoberfest this year are expected from Los Angeles, Chicago and Newark. 

How important is Oktoberfest to the local economy?

Very. Visitors spend a lot. In 2019, they splashed out more than €1.11 billion, boosting Munich’s economy significantly. 

There are around 13,000 jobs at Oktoberfest. You need to be strong – waiters and waitresses carry up to 18-litre glasses at a time – the equivalent of more than 40 kilograms.

Across Germany – including in Munich – there is a staff shortage in the catering industry following the pandemic. However, Oktoberfest boss Clemens Baumgärtner said there is “no staff shortage” at the Wiesn itself. 

Revellers clink glasses for a scaled-back Oktoberfest celebration in Munich in October 2021.

Revellers enjoy a scaled-back Oktoberfest celebration in Munich in October 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

How much beer is consumed?

In 2019, guests guzzled down 7.3 million litres of local German beer, according to breweries. 

When it comes to food, visitors ate 124 oxen and 29 calves (for veal). In addition, around 435,000 roast chickens and 120,000 pork sausages were sold at the Wiesn 2019.

However, reflecting the general trend in Germany, there is also lots of vegetarian and vegan food – and it’s gaining in popularity.

How much will beer cost this year?

Due to rising inflation, many people may be concerned about their budget. 

So here’s a look at the cost of a litre of beer (known as a Maß) at Oktoberfest 2022: the price will range from €12.60 to €13.80 – an average of 15.77 percent more than in 2019.

Drink costs are not set by the City of Munich. However, as the organiser of Oktoberfest, the city reviews the prices to ensure that they are reasonable. 

Almost 40 tents are set up for the event, with a total of around 120,000 seats. There are also lots of stands, booths and rides.

What are the outfits that people wear?

If you really want to get into the spirit of the Wiesn, you can don a traditional Bavarian costume, known as die Tracht in German. Women usually wear a Dirndl and men wear Lederhosen shorts. Lots of people like to get dressed up for the event but you won’t be refused entry if you decide to wear your regular clothes. 

READ ALSO: IN PICTURES – Germany hosts G7 with Bavarian twist

Two men wear traditional costumes in Munich in 2020.

Two men wear traditional costumes in Munich in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

Are there any rules to be aware of?

At the festival site, there are no requirements to wear face masks or show proof of Covid vaccination, recovery or a negative test (known as the 3G rules in Germany). However, you’ll have to wear a mask when travelling on public transport. 

When it comes to the energy crisis, there are also no restrictions. 

Keep in mind that there are some general rules for attending Oktoberfest though, including that backpacks are large bags are generally not allowed. 

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