Happy New Year

Across continental Europe, New Year’s Eve is called Sylvester, named after Saint Sylvester, whose feast day it is. Sylvester was an early Pope, who began his long reign in 314. At his death on December 31, 335, Sylvester left behind two of Rome’s most famous churches, the Basilica of St. Peter (St. Peter’s) and the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

The first of January as New Year’s Day was established in 46 BC at the instigation of Julius Caesar, whose name is also attached to the Julian calendar which was used across Europe up to the middle of the 1500s and is still in liturgical use in many Eastern Orthodox churches. The month was named for the Roman god Janus, whose two faces stood for what has passed and what will come.

One mark of the modern European Sylvester is the “Sylvester Ball,” formal affairs complete with evening gowns and tuxedos. Other celebrations are less formal, consisting of the fireworks and public partying familiar in the USA.

In German speaking lands, an old pagan ceremony called Bleigiessen survives. Lead is melted in a spoon and dropped into cold water, with the shape of the result foretelling the next twelve months. Other pagan customs lasted into historical days. Saint Eligius in the 600s demanded that people in the Netherlands stop making “vetulas, little deer or iotticos [ie., small idols or set tables at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks.” Much as children now lay out milk and cookies for Santa Claus, food and drink were set out by our pagan foreparents for ghosts. Dionysius Exiguus, a monkish astronomer, set the date of March 25 as New Years Day in 525, and this (as well as other dates) were celebrated, mainly into the 1500s. Only in 1752 did England officially change.