Silvester – New Year’s Eve in Germany

New Year’s Eve Customs in Austria, Germany, Switzerland

The following practices and traditions are associated with the beginning of the new year in German-speaking countries:

Bleigießen (pron. BLYE-ghee-sen)
“Lead pouring” (das Bleigießen) is an old practice using molten lead like tea leaves to predict the future. This process is called “molybdomancy” in English. A small amount of lead or tin is melted in a tablespoon (by holding a flame under the spoon) and then poured into a bowl or bucket of water. The resulting pattern is interpreted to predict the coming year. For instance, if the lead forms a ball (der Ball), that means luck will roll your way. The shape of an anchor (der Anker) means help in need. But a cross (das Kreuz) signifies death. For more, see our Bleigießen page with sample videos and links to a Web page for more about the possible meanings (in German).

“Dinner for One”
“The same procedure as every year, James.” This English line has become a familiar catchphrase in the German-speaking world. It’s part of an annual German custom that began in 1963 when German TV first broadcast a 17-minute British stage sketch entitled “Dinner for One.” Learn more about this strange custom in our article about “Dinner for One” (with video).

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Reichstag fireworks in Berlin. – Feuerwerk beim Reichstag in Berlin. PHOTO: H. Flippo

Feuerwerk (pron. FOY-er-VEHRK)
Fireworks on New Year’s Eve (Silvester) are not unique to German-speaking Europe. People all over the world use fireworks (private or government-sponsored) to welcome in the New Year and drive out evil spirits with loud noises and sparkling, flashing pyrotechnics.

Feuerzangenbowle (pron. FOY-er-TSANGEN-bow-luh)
In addition to champagne or Sekt (German sparkling wine), wine, or beer, Feuerzangenbowle (“flaming fire tongs punch”) is a popular traditional German New Year’s drink. The only drawback for this tasty punch is that it is more complicated to prepare than a normal bottled or canned beverage. Part of the popularity of Feuerzangenbowle is based on a classic novel of the same name by Heinrich Spoerl (1887-1955), and the 1944 film version starring the popular German actor Heinz Rühmann. The hot punch drink’s main ingredients are Rotwein, Rum, Orangen, Zitronen, Zimt und Gewürznelken (red wine, rum, oranges, lemons, cinnamon and cloves). See the following recipe page for details:

RECIPE > Feuerzangenbowle (fire tongs punch)
RECIPE > Glühwein (hot mulled wine)

Die Fledermaus (pron. dee FLAY-dare-mouse)
Austrians have a long tradition of welcoming the New Year with a performance of DIE FLEDERMAUS operetta (1874) by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899). Musical sentiments like “Glücklich ist, wer vergisst, was doch nicht zu ändern ist…” (“Happy is he who forgets what can’t be changed…”) and the story of a masquerade ball make this popular Operette appropriate for the New Year. Besides the annual New Year’s Day performance, both Vienna’s Volksoper and Staatsoper offer more performances of the most popular of Strauss’ operettas in January. A New Year’s performance of DIE FLEDERMAUS (“The Bat”) is also a tradition in Prague, in neighboring Czech Republic, as well as in many other parts of the world. English versions of DIE FLEDERMAUS by John Mortimer, Paul Czonka and Ariane Theslöf, or Ruth and Thomas Martin (and other translators) are performed frequently in the US and other English-speaking countries.

WEB > Die Fledermaus – Staatsoper – The operetta performance by the Vienna State Opera (with English subtitles)

Kirchenglocken (Church bells)
Besides fireworks, another sound heard all over Europe at midnight on New Year’s Eve is the clanging and bonging of church bells. One of the most notable is the large Pummerin bell above the Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), which welcomes in the New Year in Vienna.

Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic)
Austrian television (ORF) broadcasts the annual New Year’s concert by the Vienna Philharmonic live from Vienna. The broadcast is shown (live or delayed) in many other countries around the world, including in the United States (on PBS).

Neujahrskarte (pron. NOY-yahrs-KAR-tuh)
Many Germans prefer to send a New Year’s card rather than a Christmas card. They wish their friends and family Ein gutes und gesegnetes neues Jahr! (“a good and blessed New Year”) or simply Prosit Neujahr! (“Happy New Year!”). Some also use the New Year’s card to tell family and friends about events in their life during the past year.

Saint Sylvester (Pope Sylvester I) and the New Year
Der Heilige Silvester und das neue Jahr

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Sylvester I. Detail of a fresco in Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

When the old year ends and a new one dawns, Germans celebrate like most people around the world. Parties and fireworks are the norm, although many people choose to spend Silvester quietly at home watching “Dinner for One” on TV. So how did New Year’s Eve come to be called “Silvester” in German?

We don’t know when he was born, but Sylvester I was pope (Papst) from 314 until he died in Rome on December 31, 335. Legend says that Pope Sylvester cured Roman emperor Constantine I of leprosy (after converting him to Christianity, of course), for which the grateful emperor supposedly gave the pope the so-called Donation of Constantine, granting him extensive rights to land and power. However, as is often the case, the historical facts contradict the legend, and the “donation” itself seems to be a forgery going back to the 8th century. This and other Sylvester legends arose no doubt because so little is actually known about the man who served as pope for 21 years.

Over four centuries passed before St. Sylvester’s relics were moved to the Church of San Silvestro in Capite, Italy in 762. San Silvestro (St. Sylvester) is now the national church of English Catholics in Rome, and St. Sylvester’s feast day, December 31 (New Year’s Eve), is called Silvester or Silvesterabend in German. See these links for more about the man: Silvester I. (German) and Pope Sylvester (English).

New Year’s Day in March?

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Die Silvester-Partymeile in Berlin. Thousands of people gather to welcome in the New Year in Berlin. PHOTO: H. Flippo

It is all too easy to forget that New Year’s Day has not always been January 1 – even on the Christian calendar! In the early Middle Ages most of Christian Europe celebrated the beginning of each new year on March 25 (Annunciation Day). The Anglo-Saxons started the new year on March 1 until William the Conqueror made January 1 New Year’s Day. (But England later returned to the March 25 date.) Although the Julian calendar of Rome had set January 1 as the start of the year, it was not until 1582, with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, that most of Europe began the new year on the first day of January. Pope Gregory had the assistance of the German Jesuit mathematician Christopher Clavius (1537-1612) in refining his new calendar, but the Gregorian calendar was not adopted in German Protestant regions until 1700 – and even later in many parts of the world such as Britain (1751) and Russia (1918).

So, as the old year ends and the Neujahr gets off to what we all hope is a good start, we wish you “einen guten Rutsch!” (“a good slide” [into the new year]) One of your first Neujahrsvorsätze could be to learn one or more new German words a day, starting with the word for “New Year’s resolution”: der Neujahrsvorsatz. Also see our article about “Dinner for One”, a very unusual German New Year’s tradition.

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