Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Silvester in Germany

In the villages around the Mosel and Saar, the period of time between mid-November and Three Kings' Day was filled with customs and celebrations. Many of these disappeared as the immigrants from Irsch, Serrig, and Zerf and the rest of the region immigrated to America. In my part of Wisconsin, remnants of the customs of St. Nicholas Day and Christmas were preserved. Most others disappeared completely. Such was the case with New Year's Eve and New Year's day and so I thought I would try to research a typical Rhineland Silvester, the German term for the coming of the new year.

Why do the German’s call the New Year's celebration Silvester? Because December 31 is the feast of St. Sylvester, a pope of the 4th century. Legend says that Pope Sylvester cured Roman emperor Constantine I of leprosy (after converting him to Christianity).

The traditional German New Year's wish seems to me to be so much more descriptive than our "Happy New Year." My German relatives wish me "Einen guten Rutsch ins Neujahr." Who wouldn't want "a good slide into the new year!" as one year fades into another. Some linguists think this traditional German New Year's wish has nothing to do with "sliding" (rutschen) into the new year—despite the fact that most German speakers understand it that way. The expression may come from the Hebrew word "rosh," meaning "head" or "beginning"—thus "a good beginning"—as in "Rosh Hashanah," the Jewish New Year.

Pea soup was a traditional new year's dish in many parts of Germany because it was thought to bring prosperity in the new year. Fish and fish soup were also believed to auger abundance in the coming year. The eating of these foods along with regional baked specialties usually preceded the Jahresabschlussmesse, the special mass that marked the close of the old year. The pastor would take the opportunity to advise his listeners to reflect on the past year and to remember the principles that would lead to eternal life.

In some places, the villagers would gather in the church yard as midnight approached. They would
make noise with brass instruments, sing, ring the bells, shout, blow on horns - a noisy greeting to the brand new year that probably goes back to the old pre-Christian custom of scaring away the evil spirits so that they did not enter the new year. The web site of the Cologne Archdiocese calls it "Trommeln und Rummeln", a phrase that said aloud sounds exactly like its meaning.

Special types of baking to bring luck were part of the new year celebration. There were the “Neujahrskringel, -kranz, -zopf, -brezel, -striezel or (in the Rheinland) Neujährchen. As a rule the ingredients were wheat flour with the addition of grains like millet or even poppy seeds. There was a special form for the bakery. A
cross symbolized not only eternity but also protection against evil demons. A braid was a metaphor of eternity. Neujährchen of the Rhineland was most often given the shape of a four-leaf clover, again a symbol of eternity.

On New Year's day, hangovers and heartburn could be cured by leftover gingerbread soaked in brandy and lit on fire before being consumed. It was important to eat this on an empty stomach. A book in 1864 told of the custom of eating lucky foods on Silvester. Nettle cake, carrots and beer were supposed to bring money and health. Apples on the other hand would cause tumors. Illnesses of the skin could be prevented by eating a dish of peas.

It was important that good wishes for the new year be extended far and wide. When appropriate, a small gift was given in addition. In the Rheinland the „Neujährchen” was a gift to housemaids, day laborers and other workers, sometime along with a few coins, for their services during the year.

There was a belief that one could bring good luck to the new year with certain symbols. Such is the case with figures of lucky pigs, horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, and chimney sweeps. The fly agaric mushroom that has a red cap with white spots was also understood to be lucky. A lottery winner in Germany is called "a lucky mushroom."

At the beginning moments of the new year, Germans give
the toast "prosit." This toast, from the Latin, has been in use since the beginning of the 18th century. It meant to "do good," when it was "Germanized" by university student vernacular. Today it is the equivalent of "cheers".

Fireworks date back to very ancient times. In the old days people used a plant powder called "witch thunder" or "lighting powder" to produce a primitive form of fireworks. It was used to drive out demons, and its lights and noise could keep bad weather away from the house and hof. The use of fireworks goes back to the stone age. Certain plants exploded when they were exposed to fire, producing bright colors and a loud noise. These non-flowering plants have a thick yellow fluid spore powder. A part of the powder is blown into the flame, and there is rapid combustion without smoke. When the early fireworks-like substances were used to achieve good luck and the warding off of evil spirits, there was the danger of fire. A farmer would have four mounds of loose ground ready, at the four directions in which a spark might blow.

In the Westphalian area of Germany, the young people of the villages would spend New Year's eve going from house to house singing and receive small gifts. The people also believed that on New Year's Eve, nothing in the house should be moved or changed, not a piece of furniture, picture - even the things within trunks and cabinets should not be moved to a new place because that was unlucky.

On New Year's morning, the first person
to give a New Year's greeting would get a small reward like an apple, nut, candy or even a special little cake made for the day called an Eiserkuchen. The children on that morning would write a letter or card to their parents or godparents.

One of my favorite finds is the old saying about Silvester. Whoever is last to finish his meal on New Year's Day will be too late to enter heaven. Now I understand why most of my friends and relatives who have a Germanic background, including me, eat so fast. It's caused by that genetic memory!

Rätsch, Christian and Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Weihnachtsbaum und Blütenwunder. (English title is Pagan Christmas: the Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of the Yuletide) 2006
Hermine von Hagen, Damals auf dem Lande, 1985

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