German Sylvester coincides with New Year’s Eve, and many people use the names interchangeably. Actually, though, Sylvester is a feast day remembering the death of Pope Sylvester I whose papacy lasted from January 314 to his death in 335.
When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582, Saint Sylvester’s Day aligned with the last day of the calendar year; December 31st. Now, New Year’s Eve and the celebration of Sylvester (or Silvester) are almost interchangeable in Germany.
You can read more about Pope Sylvester I here.
When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582, Saint Sylvester’s Day aligned with the last day of the calendar year; December 31st. Now, New Year’s Eve and the celebration of Sylvester (or Silvester) are practically the same holiday: The word “Sylvester” is used now for the secular and the Catholic celebrations, and customs surrounding Sylvester (the New Year’s celebration) and Sylvester the feast day are interwoven.
New Year’s Eve is a big deal in Germany. I’ve always loved fireworks, and I’ve seen fireworks displays in a lot of places, including big Fourth of July festivities in the US and Lunar New Year fireworks in Taiwan and China. I’ve never seen anything like the German New Year’s Eve fireworks, though. There isn’t one single community fireworks display on Sylvester. Every town, community, and neighborhood seems to have its own stockpile of firecrackers, rockets, Roman candles, fountains, sparklers, and more.
Historically, fireworks traditions in Germany might go back as far as the German Teutons’ fear of the sun. One article I read said that the Teutons lit wooden wheels on fire and rolled them down hills. They apparently set trees on fire, too. As far as I can tell, modern day Germans have replaced wheels of fire with the same kinds of fireworks we use in the U.S. — they just just a lot more or them at once. If I see any wheels of fire tonight, you can be sure I’ll blog about them.
If you’re stationed in Wiesbaden, one of the best places to watch the fireworks is from the hill in front of the Commissary. Don’t expect there to be one single display put on by the town: instead, be prepared for fireworks displays — large and small — to be visible all over the valleys around you.
Although the nearest fireworks were probably a half a mile away or more, there were so many fireworks in all directions that smoke filled the air, even on post. No matter how well friends tried to describe Sylvester fireworks to me before last New Year’s Eve, I couldn’t have imagined how many fireworks there were until I saw them for myself. It was incredible.
I’m looking forward to finding the best place to watch the fireworks in Bavaria this year, and to seeing if there’s a difference in how Germans celebrate in the west and in Bavaria. If you have any tips for watching fireworks in the general vicinity of Regensburg, please leave a comment!