Happy New Year! But Who Is Sylvester?

Years ago we used this small 1935 hymnal for our Sunday School opening service.

1935 Sunday School Hymnal

The hymns are arranged by the church season and there are five hymns for saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming in the New Year–a season named Sylvester and New Year in this hymn book.

Sylvester and New Year Hymn

I always wondered–just who was this Sylvester? I know a hymn that mentions Ebeneezer but I had never heard of Sylvester. So I did a little searching.

Sylvester was a fourth century Roman Catholic Pope from 31 January 314 until his death on 31 December 335. He oversaw the First Council of Nicaea and the conversion of Rome’s Emperor Constantine I to Christianity. Sylvester was later made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, one of the early saints who was not a martyr. His name is also spelled Silvester, Szilveszter, Sylwester.

Saint Sylvester Day became associated with New Year’s Eve in 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was reformed. His feast day is held on the anniversary of his death, on 31 December in the west and on 2 January in the east, in the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Many European countries, especially the German-speaking ones, celebrate Saint Sylvestor Day. In fact, “Silvester” is the German name for New Year’s Eve. They celebrate Sylvester Day with fireworks, champagne, and a lot of noise-making. The loud noise is important because the fireworks, firecrackers, drums, and banging of kitchen utensils was considered a way to drive away evil winter spirits centuries ago.

Other Sylvester traditions include swinging a small item back and forth like a pendulum and asking it a yes or no question, the answer being determined by how the item swings. Another Sylvester tradition, known as Bibelstechen, involves opening the Bible to a random page and pointing to a random verse with eyes closed. The verse should provide some advice for the coming year.

I was very surprised when I did a Google search for Sylvester and a link to the Harmony Museum website in Harmony, Pennsylvania, popped up. My cousin Linda lives in Harmony and her mother, my aunt Ruth, lives in nearby Zelienople. I was even at this museum years ago.

Harmony was settled by German immigrants in 1804 and the town still celebrates “Silvester” Day on New Year’s Eve. Thousands gather as they celebrate on German Time. Midnight in Germany is 6:00 p.m. in Harmony.

Their “Silvester” Celebration consists of family-oriented activities that reflect their historic German roots. Activities include a museum tour, Christmas tree throwing contest,  comedy film “Dinner for One” [popularly viewed on New Year’s Eve in Germany], Bleigiessen [the German tradition of examining the shape of a piece of melted lead dropped into water to foretell what the New Year may hold], pork and sauerkraut dinner, a 5-K run/walk and a 1 mile fun run, music, beverages and snacks, surprises at town shops, and a ball drop to signal the arrival of 2016 at midnight in Germany, and spectacular fireworks. On New Year’s Day there is a Polar Plunge fundraiser.

Zion Chatt used to have its own New Year’s Eve celebration and the young adults of the church used to perform a play. My uncle recalls that a stage was set up in the corner of the basement, in front of the entrance to the boiler room. It must have been quite an event because I hear it attracted many from the area, not just church members. My dad was in the play “Huck Finn” one year. Perhaps they called it a Sylvester celebration.

In later years they still put on a show on New Year’s Eve. They played games mimicking TV shows, such as the Gong Show, and gave prizes.

I am not sure when this tradition died out at our church, but I do not remember attending any New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Happy New Year from Karen’s Chatt! May you have a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2017.



Saint Sylvester I, Wikipedia.org, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silvester

Silvester, Wikipedia.org,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silvester

The Harmony Museum.org, Harmony, Pennsylvania, http://www.harmonymuseum.org/Silvester.html


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  1. Very interesting! Never knew any of that. Thanks for sharing.
    Happy New year.

    1. Happy New Year to you, Janet! Glad you enjoyed the Sylvester information and thanks for reading.

    • Sondra Samples on December 30, 2016 at 9:14 am
    • Reply

    What a coincidence, Karen! My daughter, Susan, wished me a Happy Sylvester’s Day this morning before leaving to drive back to Pennsylvania. She had read it on your blog, I guess. I had never heard of it.

    1. That is too funny. I don’t think many people around here have ever heard of it. Even our pastor had not heard of it. And this area was settled by mostly Germans. I wonder if Zion Schumm used to celebrate Sylvester Day? Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!

        • Sharon Dietrich on December 30, 2016 at 10:35 am
        • Reply

        Very informative, Karen! Thanks and there is always something to learn about our past traditions! Maybe Ellen Schumm Black might remember if Schumm celebrated that day! Another person might be Karl Schumm, Convoy Van Crest Assisted Living. He is very sharp at the age of 103! Happy New Year to you also! sharon

        1. Good suggestions, Sharon. My aunt Amy might know, too. I will ask around. Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

    • Phyllis Brockmyer on January 4, 2017 at 10:44 pm
    • Reply

    I enjoy how you weave so much history into your articles. Thank you and Happy New Year.

    1. Glad you enjoy them. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year to you!

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