Silvester or New Year’s Traditions in Germany are a nice mix between staying in with family and friends… and sending the old year out with a BANG and Fireworks! How you celebrate depends on you. Personally, I’m a big fan of stay in… but ever since I was a child, we’ve made noise fireworks and cheers when the clock strikes 12. (Mostly now it’s cheers, banging of drums, and tooting of horns, since Fireworks are banned in the city where I live). Whether you go out or stay in, here are ways you can spend New Year’s Eve like a German…
What is Silvester?
Pope Silvester and Emperor Constantine- Public Domaine
Ok, first let’s clear this part up. Germans call New Year’s Eve Silvester. WHY?? Well, it goes back to 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII modified the previously used Julian Calendar, and made everyone use the Gregorian Calendar instead. (Why? because Calendar drift was messing up scheduling Easter). To get everyone back on track, 10 days were removed (from October 5- 14th of 1582), and our current system was put into place.
Can you imagine the power to reset the calendar? That brings us back to Silvester. His Saint Day was celebrated on Dec. 31st. And after the calendar switch, his day was officially the last day of the year. People called it Saint Silvester’s Day or the Feast of Saint Silvester, and it just stuck and gets used for New Year.
(Interestingly, the Pope’s power to move the calendar around, CAME from Pope Silvester! According to legend, Pope Silvester cured Emperor Constantine of leprosy by baptizing him… in exchange, the Emperor made the Pope supreme over all rulers, even the Emperor! So you see… it all sort of makes sense.)
New Year’s Traditions in Germany
Like all traditions… some make sense, some don’t. Have fun enjoying the ones you like.
A lot of New Year’s Traditions in Germany seem to focus on the future. Why not spend a part of New Year’s Eve predicting your future? For Bleigießen (Bly- geese in) you melt some lead in a spoon and then pour it into water. The shape your form takes is meant to predict your next year. Does it look like a bird? That’s Good LUCK!! Maybe it looks like a gate? This means you will change your residence. Does it look like a spoon? That means people are talking about you. Keep in mind, the shapes are vague, and probably open to interpretation (how can you tell if it’s a lamppost, and not a nail?) Still, it’s fun… Finding a Bleigießen kit is getting harder and harder because of the lead. Click here to learn more about Bleigießen, find a kit, and figure out what it means if your shape is a slipper.
Carp Scale in Your Wallet
This is one of those odd traditions that make people question why you bother following bizarre traditions. Apparently, if you put a Carp Scale … that’s right, a FISH SCALE FROM A CARP in your wallet, it will bring you money. (Because it looks like a coin… get it?) But not a different kind of Fish Scale. Other fish are bad luck. (Look out! here comes our New Year’s Eve friend Pope Silvester again). Apparently all of the non-believers who were at Pope Silvester’s death bed DIED because they choked on fish bones. So Carp YES, Salmon is apparently a no.
Carp for Dinner
Speaking of Carp… in some areas Carp is the traditional New Year’s Eve dinner. My mom has stories about how people would allow their carp to swim around in the Bathtub for a few days before it was time to dispatch it for the special meal. (Carps are bottom feeders, so letting them spend a few days in clean water would clean them up) (This of course, meant that the Bathtub was off limits to humans for a few days… ) Kids would even name their carp like pets! (Oh… I can imagine how festive dinner was when the kids discovered that “Bubbles” was on the menu).
Dinner for One
Same Procedure every Year.Dinner for One, a short film about a 90 year old woman’s birthday has been a TV fixture on New Year’s Eve since the 1970s. In it, James the Butler sets the table for Miss Sophie and her 4 friends as he does every year…. only, the friends have been dead for 25 years. She seems oblivious to this, and he plays along by not only pouring Sherry, Champagne, Wine and Port into the guest’s glasses, he drinks it all as well. There are a few stumbles (watch out for the Tiger). It’s slapstick and silly. Go ahead, watch and drink along…. Click to read more about Dinner for One and get a link to the film here
Bibel Stechen aka Bibliomancy
This method of fortune telling is one I’ve only read about… and I believe the Catholic Church frowns on it, but it still might be an interesting exercise. It goes like this-
On the night of the turn of the year, close your eyes, open your Bible using only your thumbs, and then hold it in place with one thumb (no PEEKING). Use a finger from your other hand to point to a place on the page. What is in the Bible text is intended to shed light on the coming year.
Note- made with jelly, not MUSTARD
Berliner/ Krapfen/ Pfannekuchen are the German version of the Jelly Donuts. These popular treats from Karneval/Fasching are back for New Year! (As are many other fried foods). Why not? Enjoy as many as you like to soak up the Sekt! But beware! Some prankster may have filled a few of them with Mustard or Onions. (who says Germans don’t have a sense of humor?)
My Oma’s Krapfen
My Oma always made RheinischeKrapfen for New Year. Unlike the Berliner version, her Krapfen are more like fried dumplings. These “hooked” fried treats are filled with raisins and covered in sugar. Honestly, they are the best right out of the fryer (so stand by the chefs elbow, and prepare to burn your mouth!) So good!
Fireworks and Loud Noise!
One of the oldest New Year’s traditions in Germany goes back to pre-Christianity. In the Pagen times, the Rauhnächte are the 12 days after the solstice where the wild spirits run free. And of course, Silvester falls right in the middle of that time. People believed that they could be scared off with loud noise… so bang the pots! shoot off the canons! and blow your horns! Send Wotan back to where he came from. Fireworks are noisy! And it’s logical that they were incorporated into the celebrations.
Some believe that the fireworks may also be related to old tradition of rolling burning wheels down the hill. Pagens considered this a good way to bring the sun back. And since it has every year, why not?
(Note. Some German cities are putting limits or restricting fireworks this year, especially personal ones. What I’ve heard from people in Berlin, it’s about safety and controlling the chaos.)
New Year’s Eve, the perfect time to set your drink on FIRE! Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Feuerzangenbowle even more. (I made quite a study of it at the German Christmas Markets). Basically, you start with Glühwein, then soak a cone of sugar with rum and place it on a rack over the Glühwein. Now set the sugar on fire. Drip drip drip… the sweet caramelly goodness falls into the Glühwein adding a special punch. It’s perfect for parties. Click to get my recipe for Feuerzangenbowle here
Simply put, Sekt is sparkling wine, and what’s New Year’s Eve without sparkling wine? (Remember, the word Champagne can only be used to describe sparkling wine specifically from the Champagne region of France… you can have that too) Pop open a bottle at Midnight and toast your friends with the word “Prosit!” Fun fact! the word “Prosit” comes from Latin, and means “may it succeed“!
This time of year, Germans will wish you a “Guten Rutsch”… a good slide? (They must have seen me walk on icy cobblestones!) Actually, there are few different etiologies for this word. One comes from the Grimm brothers dictionary for sliding (when Rutsch is used in the feminine form)… so, wishing you a good slide into the New Year. The masculine form means a short journey. (WHY are their differences? My daughter would say “blame the patriarchy”, but the reality is that German is a funky language) ANYWAY… Goethe used the term anrutschen in a humorous way to describe traveling or arriving. (Figures that a New Year’s Traditions in Germany will dwell on grammer…)
Another theory (you are enjoying this, aren’t you?) is that Rutsch comes from the Yiddish word Rosh… and since Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year (which is actually no where NEAR the Silvester) the word just stuck.
Where ever the words came from, they mean the same thing… HAPPY NEW YEAR and All the best in the New Year!!
Good Luck Charms
Germans love good luck charms. And they give a LOT of them as gifts for New Year. (I figure, a little good luck can’t help, so why not!) Usually the charms are pigs or mushrooms. Why a pig? years ago, if you had a pig on your farm, it meant that you would probably survive without starving. Why a mushroom? Because the red and white Amanita muscaria grows near Christmas Trees. Also lucky are ladybugs, horse shoes and clover. These little charm gifts are often made from Marzipan or Chocolate (yum). And this time of year there are LOADs to choose from in the stores and markets.
We can’t forget that luckiest of people… the Chimney Sweep. The German word “Schornsteinfeger” is one of the ultimate tongue twisters! Remember Bert in Mary Poppins… singing about the “good luck” that rubs off (actually, that’s soot)… well it turns out that Schornsteinfeger are lucky for a reason. In a world where everything was flammable, no one had insurance (a German nightmare), and chimneys frequently caught fire… the guy that serviced those chimneys was everyone’s best buddy.
Let’s end with cheese. Raclette is a relatively new New Year’s Eve tradition in Germany, but it is quite popular. Think melted cheese… lots of melted cheese. At dinner parties, a Raclette Grill is placed in the center of the table surrounded by all sorts of accompaniments, including small boiled potatoes, ham, vegetables, pickles and of course, Raclette cheese. The Grill will melt the cheese and cook the vegetables. People can cook and eat for hours… which makes it a lovely way to spend an evening. Click to learn more about Raclette here
Wishing you all a Guten Rutsch!!!