Saint Sylvester’s Day / New Year’s Eve Date in the current year: December 31, 2019

Saint Sylvester’s Day / New Year’s Eve On December 31, Western Christians celebrate Saint Sylvester’s Day. For many non-Christians and non-religious people around the world, the last day of the year in the Gregorian calendar is simply New Year’s Eve. In some countries, it is a public holiday or at least at half-holiday.

Saint Sylvester, also known as Pope Sylvester I, was Pope of the Catholic Church in the 4th century. Although he was the bishop of Rome during an important period in the history of the Western Church, very little is known of him or his deeds. Most accounts of Saint Sylvester’s life are fictional. One of the most popular legends has him slaying a dragon and resurrecting its victims, so the saint is often depicted with the dying beast.

The Catholic Church celebrates the liturgical feast of Saint Sylvester on December 31, the day his remains were transferred to the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. This is the last day of the calendar year, and because of this coincidence, in some countries New Year’s Eve is commonly referred to as Sylvester. They include Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, and, somewhat surprisingly, Israel.

In some countries, there are specific Saint Sylvester’s Day traditions that are supposed to bring luck in the coming year. For example, in the Austrian capital of Vienna, people walk pigs on leashes to lure in luck. Some Germans mark Saint Sylvester’s Day by practicing divination with molten metal. They hold a piece of led or tin over an open flame in an old spoon, drop the molten metal into a bowl of cold water, and determine their fortune in the coming year by the shape of the metal.

Throughout the world, New Year’s Eve celebrations involve family gatherings, late-night partying, sparklers and fireworks, gift exchanges, drinking champagne, countdowns until midnight, and New Year resolutions and wishes. Even in the countries that live by calendars other than the Gregorian calendar (for example, a large part of Asia), there’s often some kind of an unofficial or semi-official New Years’ Eve celebration.

When talking about New Years’ Eve celebrations, the Scottish one deserves a special mention. The Scots call the last day of the year Hogmanay. The celebration is believed to have been derived from Gaelic and Norse observances, it is probably much older than Saint Sylvester’s Day. Hogmanay is strongly associated with fire in all its forms including fireball swinging, torchlight processions, fire performances, and fireworks.

Another well-known Hogmanay tradition is first-footing. The Scots believe that the first person to enter the home after New Years’ Eve gives way to New Years’ Day brings good fortune for the coming year. This person is called the first-foot, and it’s usually a male (preferably a tall, dark-haired one). The first-foot usually brings several gifts for good luck including a coin for financial prosperity, bread for food, salt for flavor, coal for warmth, a twig of evergreen for long life, and whisky for good cheer.

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