Today we are celebrating the end of 2010; and once again these sorts of traditions remind me of how I used to celebrate them back home in Austria. As everywhere in the rest of the world it is a big hoopla in Austria too, with parties galore and fireworks everywhere. But we don’t call it New Year’s Eve, we call it Silvester.
When in 1582 the Gregorian Calendar changed the end of December from the 24th to the 31st Pope Silvester I († 12/31/335) became the patron saint of the day. His papacy took place during the early days of Christianity under Emperor Constantine I (272-337). Pope Silvester I was known for endless benevolence towards the poor. He ordained that the wealthy clergy should each support a certain number of those in need. During his pontificate many great basilicas were built, and he issued a few important ordinances. He reserved to bishops the right of consecrating the Holy Chrism, ordered priests to anoint with Chrism the heads of the newly baptized, settled the officiating dress of deacons as a dalmatic and a linen maniple, and forbade the consecration of the Sacrament of the Altar on anything but a linen corporal. He also decreed that the first and seventh days of the week should be called respectively the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath, and therefore confirmed the week days as we know them today.
Pope Silvester I was made Saint Silvester as the first holy pope who was not a martyr. The Roman Catholic Church bestowed him the day of his death on December 31st to honor him. His name comes from Silva, the forest, and so he became the patron of domestic animals and a good new year.
In Austria we have a number of traditions to start the new year. In addition to the customary fireworks and fire crackers we also and pour lead. The fire goes back to Germanic traditions, the fire crackers are a pagan tradition to scare away the evil winter spirits, and the pouring of lead is a Roman custom that serves as an oracle for the coming year. Pieces of lead get molten in a spoon and then poured into cold water, the lead freezing into bizarre shapes to be interpreted for the future.
We also have a number of symbols for good luck, which are created in many materials, most of which are edible. The chimney sweep (protection from fire), the pig (plenty of food), the four-leafed clover (good luck), the horseshoe (good luck), the lady bug (protection), and the Toadstool mushroom (pleasure) are made from chocolate or marzipan and given as gifts. The official drink of course is sparkling wine or Sekt, as it is called in German, denoting sparkling wines that are not Champagne. Unlike in the US they are very particular in Europe about not calling anything Champagne if it is not from the Champagne region.
At midnight the fireworks go off and the church bells ring; but one of my favorite traditions is to greet the new year with the Blue Danube Waltz (“An der schönen blauen Donau”) by Johann Strauss II. Whether at a party, watching TV, or viewing the fireworks from a mountain top while listening to the car radio radio, they will play this beautiful waltz that happily and smoothly sways everyone into the new year. Give it a listen as performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Georges Prêtre.
To start the new year in Austrian style each year I watch the New Year’s Concert in Vienna on PBS. Going back to 1939 and held at the opulent Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein each year a different prominent international conductor puts together a classical program, which always includes compositions from the Strauss family. The concert always has three encores, the first most often a fast Polka, the second the Blue Danube Waltz, and the third the Radetzky March, during which the audience is invited by the conductor to clap along. Now that is how I like to ring in the new year.
Wishing you all a very Happy New Year. May it be healthy and prosperous, and filled with love and laughter.