Silvester Is A Modern Day Party Of Ancient New Year’s Traditions

If you’re lucky enough to ring in the New Year while visiting Germany, you’ll probably want to know all about the traditional New Year’s celebrations here.

Firstly, New Year’s Eve is called Silvester here, as the feast day of Saint Silvester. Silvester was a legendary character, who served as pope and reputedly baptized the famous Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great. He is also said to have cured lepers and have met with members of Jesus Christ’s family — the only pope to have done so.

Silvester gets the honor of having the New Year’s celebrations named after him because his feast day was always marked on December 31. When the calendar was modified all the way back in 1582, this date became fixed as the final day of the year. And so, the holiday of Silvester — New Year’s Eve — took its name from this ancient saint.

Bleigießen is one of the more traditional German New Year’s customs. Bleigießen is fortune-telling with cold water and molten lead. The lead is poured into the liquid, and whatever shape it forms gives an idea of what your future holds.

For example, a ring shape could mean a wedding, or a pig meant a plentiful amount of food in the coming year. A ball means good luck in the coming year, while an anchor means help is needed. A cross can signify death. (Of course, be careful if you choose to celebrate this custom on your own. Lead can be poisonous and you won’t need a molten lead shape to tell you you are in danger if you have too much exposure to this toxic substance!)

There are alternative forms of divination on this holiday as well. You can try out the Bibelstechen, where you open the Bible at random and close your eyes as you point to the words on the page. Whatever verse your finger landed on is said to have some worthwhile advise for the next year.

Then there is the pendulum game. You use some type of pendulous device, a necklace or a chain for example, then ask a yes-or-no question. If the pendulum swings in a circle, the answer is yes. Vertical swings mean no, while a horizontal one signifies uncertainty.

Noise is also an essential part of the Silvester celebrations. While it is a natural by-product of large gatherings of people and fireworks, there is a reason why we Germans have embraced the cacophony of this holiday. Loud sounds were believed to frighten away any evil spirits. And fireworks not only added sound but also an alternative light. The ancients believed that this was the day when the sun stopped moving and so created their own forms of light with wheels and cudgels set ablaze with fire. These were the precursors to our modern-day pyrotechnics.

Warm wishes for luck in the New Year are shared among friends with the cry of Guten Rutsch! (spelled Goo-ten Rootsh!). It is traditional to give your loved ones small good luck charms on this day, like horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, pigs and ladybugs.

If you’re visiting at this time, be sure to have some of the typical holiday fare. It is considered lucky to eat carp or herring on this day, washed down with a glass of champagne. If you’re hoping for more money in the new year, then it’s traditional to eat cabbage or carrots. Lentil and pea soup are also very popular at the holiday.

It’s also customary to share meat or a cheese fondue with your closest family and friends. But watch out for the doughnuts! You may find yourself the victim of a holiday prank if you don’t look inside before you bite into a jelly doughnut. Sometimes you will find them filled with mustard as a fun holiday joke.

But what New Year’s is mostly about these days is the party! Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate hosts one of Germany’s biggest events, but Germans all over the country partake in the festivities. Fireworks, alcohol, kissing and shouts of Frohes Neues Jahr! are all ways of celebrating once the clock strikes midnight. :-)

—Marcus

 

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