Happy Sylvester!

Yes, Happy Sylvester.

January 1st is not the first day of the new year here in Israel.  In the Hebrew calendar the year begins on the 1st of Tishrei, which is in the fall.  So celebrating the beginning of a new year on December 31st is a definite no-no according to the religious powers-that-be, who go so far as to fine and/or remove licenses from establishments who host “New Year’s Eve” parties on this date.  The Israeli solution to this is simple.  We don’t call it New Years.  We call it Sylvester.  And Sylvester parties abound.

Why Sylvester?  People throughout Europe (except in England, I’ve found) refer to it as Sylvester as well.   I was always told by various Europeans that in Catholicism, each saint has a day on which s/he is remembered, and December 31st happened to be Saint Sylvester’s day.  The fact that no Catholic I’ve ever met knows about this saint is interesting, but irrelevant.  The name has stuck.

(I do wonder why celebrating the “Christian” calendar is a no-no but celebrating a Catholic saint’s day is OK, and indeed there are some rabbis who are beginning to make a fuss about Sylvester as well, but so far it’s worked, so ssshhhh.)

Israeli writer and columnist Daniel Rogov wrote this about it:

Americans and the English refer to the night of 31 December ‘New Year’s Eve’ but Europeans, Israelis and many others around the world refer to the celebration of the onset of the year as ‘Sylvester.’ Oddly enough, no one is quite sure just how this appellation came into use. In fact, no one is even quite certain just who Sylvester was.

Until recently, most scholars agreed that Sylvester was a Catholic saint. After that, however, all became confusion, some speculating that he was an obscure parish priest who attained sainthood primarily because he walked barefoot from Bordeaux to Jerusalem.  Others hypothesized that the Sylvester in question was the Roman-Catholic pope whose major claim to eternal fame is that he is said to have brought a dead bull back to life. Yet another school of thought has it that Sylvester was in fact an Italian monk, more famous for his seduction of local maidens than for his saintliness.

Those interested in such things will be delighted to know that there is a new hypothesis that may explain who Sylvester really was. In his recently published ‘France in the Middle Ages,’ historian Georges Duby speculates that the Sylvester in question might have been Peter Sylvester who was the bishop of Beauvais in 1431, when Joan of Arc was arrested in his city.

The reason that this particular Sylvester earned the love of most Frenchmen is that unlike most of his church colleagues, he did not believe that the young maid was acting under the influence of the devil. Although he did not accept Joan’s claim that she was  ‘following the direct orders of God,’  he did feel that she was  ‘a good Christian and a young woman of purity who lived according to the rules of the church and who had no evil in her.’  He concluded that there was no reason to bring her to trial.

Because his beliefs were not acceptable to those churchmen who wanted to try and execute Joan, Sylvester was arrested during the morning of December 31st. After being charged with idolatry, fornication and conversing with the Devil, the 82 year old bishop was placed in a cell and his former colleagues began to torture him in order to gain a confession. Several minutes before midnight, the bishop died. His last words were:  ‘The year ends and so do I.'”

Officially, of course, it is not a holiday.  Both December 31st and January 1st are regular workdays.  It hasn’t stopped people from holding Sylvester parties.  And the fact that this year it falls on Thursday night, and most people are off on Fridays, makes it much easier to “just happen to” have a party.

We’re not going to one of the “fashionable” huge parties.  We’re getting together with friends, lots of food and potent Swedish Glögg (courtesy of partner).  We’ll argue with kidlet about why she’s getting the non-alcoholic version of the glögg.  We’ll stay up to toast 2010…..um, I mean Sylvester.  Or maybe just each other.

So to my non-Israeli friends I wish you Happy New Year!  And to all my Israeli friends have a Happy Sylvester!  (And wherever you are, please travel safely.)

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5 Responses to “Happy Sylvester!”

  1. onsundaymorning Says:

    Wow, I never knew that. Thank you for teaching me something new. Happy Sylvester.

  2. Noeller67 Says:

    Wow – very interesting. I like that I learned something new today. Thanks Chana!

  3. Courtney Says:

    Matt’s boss described it a little differently – he said Israelis DON’T celebrate New Year’s BECAUSE it’s Sylvester Day, and Jews don’t celebrate Catholic saints. We thought that was so funny, because we’d never heard of Sylvester, nor had anyone we polled.

    (Matt’s boss gave us a lot of wrong information about Haifa and Israel during our three years there.)

    Happy Sylvester, Chana!

  4. Andrea Says:

    Very Interesting! Happy Sylvester to you too:)

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