December 31, the German New Year’s Eve, is called “Silvester” and is an occasion that is rife with superstition and customs that originally arose out of superstitious beliefs. The day is named after Saint Silvester, who ruled as bishop of Rome in the 4th century and who died on December 31, 335. But even though the Catholic church actively tried to make his commemorative day a part of the Christian religious calendar, most of the customs associated with New Year’s Eve derive from pagan beliefs. The long, dark nights that follow Christmas were thought to be the perfect cover for all manner of spirits to perpetrate some mischief in the world. Consequently, many German New Year’s Eve customs focused on chasing away these spirits in whatever form was meaningful to a local culture. In some areas, blacksmiths would beat their anvils to scare away the spirits. In other areas, horse whips were cracked to accomplish the same goal. The common denominator was a great and diverse abundance of noise-making instruments, from guns and fireworks to bells, sirens, and trumpets. To this day, many of these noise-making devices are used to ring in the New Year, not just in Germany, but all over the world.
The end of the year means the beginning of something new and uncertain, which gave rise to many customs that originated from man’s fear of the unknown and desire to gain some insight into what’s about to come. Thus, New Year’s Eve celebrations in many areas include various methods of trying to predict the future. In Germany, the most common form of this is lead pouring (“Bleigießen”). A small piece of lead is melted in a spoon over a candle and poured into cold water, where the liquid reassumes some kind of shape. The shape is supposed to predict a person’s fortune for the new year. Elaborate interpretive keys are available to help divine the meaning of the lead shape: a ball shape predicts good luck rolling around; a heart promises love; a bell predicts good news etc. This custom is still quite popular despite the possible ill health effects of the lead. Less hazardous is an alternative method of using melted candle wax instead of lead. The interpretation of the shape, of course, will always depend on the imagination of the interpreter.
Apart from these common customs, there are some very specific local New Year’s Eve traditions, such as children singing or reciting verses, young men in costumes going door-to-door collecting food items for their party, or various dice/card games. In most places, though, alcoholic beverages are part and parcel of the celebration as well. At the stroke of midnight, revelers toast each other with champagne or punch and wish each other “Prosit Neujahr,” which is a Latin phrase meaning “May it succeed.” Very commonly, people also wish each other “einen guten Rutsch,” literally “a good slide,” a German misinterpretation of the Hebrew phrase “Rosh Hashanah” (head/beginning of the year).
In addition to the typical customs for New Year’s Eve, there are also some interesting customs for New Year’s Day. Video (German only, but fairly simple).
So no matter how you spend your New Year’s Eve or what traditions you celebrate, we wish you “Prosit” and a “good slide.”
If you do plan to pour some lead or candle wax, the following chart can help you interpret the meaning of your lead/wax creations.