The night of the Holy Sylvester, the last night of the year, was from times of old the night of fools and a frolicking good time. The saint of this day, Pope Sylvester I, according to legend is the man who healed from leprosy and baptized the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. At this point in history the fate of the Christian Church turned as persecutions ended and the Occident was won for Christianity. Pope Sylvester lead the Church from 314 until his death, December 31, 335 into a period of peace.

Many old pagan gods lost their rank of deity in this new era, but they were not dead. As sprightly devils, wicked demons, and clever goblins, they made their reappearance. Many of them locked on to a human soul and moved in. Mummers in noisy processions (video clips and description in German), with crackers, whips, and rattles in the streets, would drive out evil spirits and light up the darkness of the new year.

In religious households Christians may have opened the Bible, and read the place to which it opened, as a sign foretelling the future, yet the interpretation of dreams and Bleigiessen (pouring molted lead) came to serve the same purpose.

While the great year-end celebrations were of a pious nature, in the night of the Holy Sylvester awakens once more something of the frolicking good time of life. When the old year disappears in the misty fogs of the past, people cheer one another as if they were brothers, with others they don fools caps' and make noise with all sorts of noise-making equipment. In many of the German-speaking areas the change of the year is celebrated noisily and merrily. Guests are invited, and groups attend a "Silvester Ball." There is eating, drinking, dancing and singing. It may be accompanied by the popular "Silvester" custom of Bleigiessen. A small piece of lead will be melted over a flame in an old spoon and dropped into a bowl of cold water. From the shape you can supposedly tell your fortune for the coming year. At midnight, when the old year is almost spent and the new year is about to start, glasses are filled with champagne or wine, and toasts and hugs go with wishing each other a "gutes neues Jahr". Some go out into the streets and listen to the bells ringing throughout the land. Others participate in shooting in the New Year, or put on their private fireworks.

For Silvester (New Year's Eve) lentil (or split pea) soup with wieners (Wiener Würstchen) is popular, since it can be prepared a few days ahead. Also popular to share with family and friends is a meat or a cheese fondue.

The Swiss Neuenburger Fondue was originally a lump of cheese which was melted in a kettle; fondue means "melted." It is eaten with white bread and tea. This fun meal has in the last 50 years entered the flatlands:

300 g Emmentaler
300 g Greyerzer
1 clove garlic
1/2 l dry white wine
4 table spoons Kirschwasser (German cherry brandy)
2 tea spoons starch
freshly ground pepper, nutmeg
2 sticks French bread or baguettes

Grind cheese by hand or with a grinder, rub Fondue kettle with garlic, add white wine and place on fire, slowly add cheese and stir continuously until melted. Mix starch and Kirschwasser (cherry brandy), pour into cheese mass and mix, add pepper and nutmeg to taste. Cut bread ahead of time into cubes, dip with Fondue sticks. Dry white wine can also be served.

A festive drink, and fun to serve to friends at a special occasion, such as Silvesterabend (New Year's Eve), is the Feuerzangenbowle (image one and two)

2 bottles white wine
1/2 lemon
1 orange
1/2 bottle dry sherry
1/2 bottle arrack
1 sugar loaf
2 cloves, 1 stick cinnamon

Press lemon, orange, cloves and cinnamon into wine and bring almost to a boil; place sugar loaf over kettle, either on a special holder or on two metal rods. Pour arrack on sugar and light with a match, keep dripping arrack on flaming sugar until all sugar has dissolved and dripped into the wine. Red wine and rum may also be used in place of arrack.

Served on Silvester and also for Fasching are Berliner Pfannkuchen (jelly-filled donuts). A large variety of donuts, named "Krapfen, Mutzen, Chüchli" and shaped and prepared differently in various German-speaking regions, have been brought to the U.S.

For New Year's Day serve "Kassler mit Sauerkraut." If you start the year this way, so the saying goes, you will never run out of available cash.

Ruth Reichmann
Max Kade German-American Center, IUPUI


Many German-style delis or bakeries may have the Zuckerut needed for a proper Feuerzangenbowle. In a pinch make your own. Twist a cone out of paper. Mix up granulated sugar, water or schnapps to moisten and some powdered sugar to make a damp mess and then tamp it into the paper cone. Allow to dry over a radiator or heat vent or in a low heat oven. When dry, and you will have to experiment, have loads of fun peeling off the paper.

  • Glühwein and other recipes in English.
  • How too much Feuerzangenbowle can make you look
  • Further holiday recipes are at our Christmas Recipes and Foods Page.


  • Custom of Bleigiessen: lead-pouring and fortune telling
  • What other customs of bringing luck are there in Germany and Austria?
  • Pope Silvester and the so-called Donation of Constantine.
  • Several New Year's Poems in German
  • This Day in German History: December 31 and January 1.

    AATG listserv comments on a "guten Rutsch"

    "Einen guten Rutsch" is a phrase coined around the turn of the century in the wake of the development of the railroad and early tourism with the train. Lutz Roehrich states this briefly in his Lexikon der sprichwoertlichen Redensarten, without giving any further sources. But Kuepper: Woerterbuch der deutschen Umgangssprache, 1987, confirms this even better, stating that the phrase emerged around 1900, originally meaning: have a good trip, or a guten Rutsch. A.C.

    "Rosh" in Hebrew and Arabic (which is my native tongue) has nothing to do with "Rutsch" Rosh means the head of; in Rosh hashana; it means the head of the year or the top of the year and has nothing to do with Rutsch

    Rutsch, der; -[e]s, -e: 1. a) das Rutschen nach unten; gleitende Abwaertsbewegung: *guten R.! (ugs.; gute Fahrt!); guten R. ins neue Jahr! (ugs.; Wunschformel zum Jahreswechsel; wohl zu rotwelsch rosch= Anfang, Beginn, eigtl.= Kopf, also eigtl. = guten [Jahres]anfang, volksetym. angelehnt an Rutsch); :ą ¬ Duden - Deutsches Universalw÷rterbuch. 4. Aufl. Mannheim 2001. [CD-ROM].

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