Saturday, December 29, 2018

Silvester in Germany

As New Year's Eve approaches I thought I would write about the local traditions which make this night special and memorable.

First of all, why is NYE called Silvester in Germany? For the same reason that December 6th is called Nikolaustag (St. Nick's Day). In the Catholic tradition, almost every day of the year celebrates a certain saint based on the date of that saint's birth, baptism, or death. That is the saint's Gedenktag, or feast day.

Silvester is the patron saint of housepets, cows, masons, and bricklayers. He was Pope (315-335 A.D.) during the reign of Constantine and when the Council of Nicea (Nicene Creed, 325 A.D.) was convened. He died on December 31, 335, and since NYE is Silvester's feast day, the last night of the year in Germany is called Silvester.

We follow the old Silvester traditions of the Germans - all except for the Feuerwerk, though we do step outside at midnight to watch the townfolk try their very best to set things aflame. We don't do gute Vorsätze für's neue Jahr (New Year's resolutions) either - we're realists and know we won't follow them more than a day or two.

Fondue was a thing of the 70s, but many people still do this or Raclette on Silvester. Those are perfect meals for an evening when you need to draw out the hours until midnight, since one is forced to eat slowly, cooking each bite-size piece of meat individually. We do ours in homemade beef broth, which we prepare in the afternoon with meat & bones from the butcher and vegetables from Mustafa, our Tuesday vegetable guy who is willing to deliver on holidays!

No German Silvester would be complete without the British comedy short Dinner for One, starring Freddy Frinton. This is a cult hit in Germany only, as few Brits and no Americans have ever heard of it. It's a ridiculously funny sketch celebrating yearly traditions: Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday, and her butler James has set places at the table for her four closest friends. With each of the seven courses served, Miss Sophie requests a different type of wine, which James pours for each of the guests. The trouble is, Sophie has out-lived all four of her friends, so James takes on their roles - and dialects - to toast with Sophie. As James gets drunker and drunker and has several run-ins with a tiger carpet, Sophie enjoys the fancy meal, the classy wine, and the fading memories.

We've done Bleigiessen a few times, but as of this year it's banned by the EU and you can't buy these kits anymore. Bleigiessen means "pouring lead," which probably makes clear the reason for the ban. Each person takes a piece of lead shaped like a Monopoly playing piece, melts it over a candle (or flambé burner, when you realize the tea candle will never get hot enough) and pours it into a bowl of cold water. It makes a cool popping sound as it solidifies into an unrecognizable shape. You then use the mysterious guide that comes with the kit to choose the shape you think most fits to your solid glob of lead. Each shape has a meaning and predicts something about your upcoming year. You know, if you believe in that kind of thing. Which we definitely do.

Bleigiessen is one of those activities that helps helped keep overtired kids occupied during the long hours till fireworks start.

In Swabia the Brezel is a beloved snack throughout the year, but on Silvester Swabians laud Neujahrsgebäck. The Neujahrsbrezel is a large braided pretzel made of Hefeteig, or yeast dough. It's sweet by German standards, and extra delicious when warmed and spread with butter.

It wouldn't be a German tradition without a symbolic meaning attached, so here we go: One explanation for why we indulge in large, sweet bakery at the start of the new year is that we have to build up our fat stores for the approaching Fastenzeit (fasting time). Fattening up isn't really an issue for most of us these days, so another theory is that evil spirits nibble on these treats and are appeased - and therefore leave us alone during the winter months.

Though there are other shapes of Neujahrsgebäck (wreaths, crescents, man-shaped), the pretzel is a favorite because it has no beginning and no end, thereby symbolizing eternity and bringing good luck.

Be careful if you're spending Silvester in Baden (the region of Baden-Württemberg that is not Swabia) - it's a tradition there to bake coins into the Neujahrsgebäck for good luck. Or bad luck if you break a tooth biting into the tasty treat. Most dentists are closed during the holidays.

We will also likely watch Angela Merkel's final Silvesteransprache (New Year's Eve speech). I can't claim that to be a tradition for us during the last several years, but it probably should have been.

Traditional good luck symbols in Germany are the Marienkäfer (Ladybug), the Schornsteinfeger (chimney sweep), the Glücksklee (clover) and the Glücksschwein (lucky pig), all pictured in my first photo above. The Glücksschwein has a Pfennig or Cent stuck in its mouth or on its back, and you can find edible pink ones made of nasty Marzipan, which takes like a combination of Playdough and earwax.
I haven't noticed any extra good luck from the Schornsteinfeger's visits- only the bill he leaves with us two or three times a year when he checks our furnace and sweeps the chimney. And yes, he does show up dressed like that - in all black with a hat or cap, and carrying the funny brush thingy. We provide the ladder, though.

One more tradition that seems fairly recent is the Silvesterlauf or Neujahrslauf. This is a mini-marathon held in cities and small towns to bring the community together and often raise some money for a good cause. At the end of the run everyone refills with pretzels and beer. That's too much sport for me, so I'm going to count our walk to the store on Saturday in search of icky Marizpan pigs (we searched in vain) as our Silvester exercise.

At midnight we toast the New Year (anstoßen) with Kessler Sekt from Esslingen, step outside to watch the neighbors' fireworks while M prowls around the house watching for burning embers landing on the roof, greet any folks from the neighborhood who also came out to watch the show and inhale the  sanctioned Feinstaub, then go back inside, blow out the candles, and go to bed.

We may not be the most exciting folks, but we enjoy our Silvester every year.

The common greetings for this holiday are:

  [Wir wünschen Euch einen] guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr! (up to midnight on Silvester)
  Guten Rutsch!  (lazy version of the above)

  Prosit Neujahr!
  [Ich wünsche Dir ein] gutes neues Jahr!
  Gutes Neues!  (lazy version of the above)

Prosit Neujahr!!


  1. "Fattening up isn't really an issue for most of us these days" hahahaha. So true ;)

    Your NYE sounds lovely and relaxed, and that's the way to go. We'll be at a fave restaurant, but I love a raclette if we stay home. Last year BV's dad gave us little Glücksschwein candles, but this year he brought comically large marzipan pigs. We both like it, but it'll probably take us at least the year to get through those things!

    1. We're not social enough to go out on NYE. :-) We usually do Raclette on Christmas Eve - both of those meals are great for stretching out the evening. It forces you to eat slowly also, which is a good thing! I may be going into town tomorrow to look for some Glücksschweine.

      Have a happy New Year and enjoy your evening out!