Silvester (New Year’s Eve)
Just like in so many other countries, Germans celebrate on the evening of December 31st leading up to the arrival of the new year at midnight. However, there are quite a few particularities that set the German New Year’s traditions apart.
The first difference you’re likely to notice is when German talk about New Year’s Eve: they call it “Silvester.” This is because December 31st is the Feast of St. Sylvester
It’s not clear why the saint should be so especially well remembered in Germany, since there’s not much concrete known about him besides the fact that he served as pope from 314 to 335. Legends about him abound, including that he cured Constantine I, emperor of Rome, of leprosy. In any case, Catholic records confirm his death on December 31, 335, and New Year celebrations in Germany at least commemorate the day of his death by speaking his name.
Many German New Year traditions are rooted in both Christian and earlier pagan traditions. The advent of the new year was always a time for making an enormous amount of noise to scare off evil spirits. Today we more commonly associate the sound of church bells with marking time and occasions to celebrate. Either way, you’ll hear a chorus of church bells from all over the city at midnight!
The most memorable part of any German New Year’s Eve celebration is the fireworks show. It’s easy to scoff at the idea, since we’ve all seen fireworks for various holidays, but living through the midnight extravaganza in a German city such as Stuttgart is truly a unique experience.
Although children’s firecrackers (Klasse I fireworks) can be purchased and used at any time of year, true fireworks (Klasse II fireworks) are only available for sale from December 28th to December 31st. Furthermore, they are only allowed to be set off for the New Year celebration on December 31st and January 1st (unless you apply for a special event license). Yet somehow in that four-day period Germans manage to purchase an incredible quantity and variety of fireworks: in fact, Germans annually spend more than 100 million euros on fireworks for personal use!
As a result, the New Year fireworks show is no carefully choreographed display put on in one part of the city. Rather, it seems like the sky is exploding as individuals in every neighborhood go outside and set off their trove of fireworks. People stand on their balconies and out on the street, often vying to outdo their neighbors. It is a perfectly wonderful example of contained anarchy.
There always used to be an especially amazing fireworks display in the Schlossplatz in front of the Neue Schloss. However, due to environmental activism aimed at reducing the problem of fine particle pollution, starting in 2019 there will be no fireworks there or in the surrounding downtown area. Instead, the city will put on a lights show and concert.
On New Year’s Day, be sure to watch out for debris in the streets and parks outside the city center. There a risk that sharp metal or glass pieces could puncture a bicycle tire or child’s shoe sole. It usually takes the city of Stuttgart a couple of days after the holiday to get everything cleaned up.
The new year is a time to wish your friends and loved ones good luck! The most common expression is “Ich wünsche einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!” or just “guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr!” Literally you wish each other a good “slide” into the new year.
If you go to a New Year’s Eve party, you’ll want to bring your host and hostess some kind of lucky token in the shape of a pig, four-leafed clover, ladybug, or horseshoe. Such lucky charms are also sometimes exchanged between friends.
Some Germans also participate in traditions for predicting what will come in the next year. It starts with asking a specific question about a particular person’s upcoming year. Some people then open the Bible and read a passage at random to shed light on the question. Others limit the questions to ones that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” and use a pendulum to find the answer.
Festive Food and Drink
In Germany as everywhere else, the holiday is an excuse to indulge in special rich foods and alcoholic beverages.
Interestingly, two of the most popular dishes to enjoy on New Year’s Eve are actually from Switzerland: fondue and raclette. Both involve gathering around a communal table and gradually cooking the meal serving by serving. Traditional fondue starts with a hot pot of oil or broth. Each guest has one or more long sharp forks onto which meat and sometimes vegetables are speared so they can be held in the pot until cooked. Of course there are also cheese and chocolate variations that are popular as well. Raclette centers around a special mini stove range. Each guest has their own mini pan or spatula to cook each serving. The most traditional raclette serving consists of a round slice of potato topped with a slice of a particular Swiss cheese, heated until the cheese melts, but other vegetables may be included, too.
Berliner Pfannkuchen (filled donuts) are a popular New Year’s treat. A Berliner is most commonly filled with jelly, but for New Year’s they may also contain special chocolate, vanilla, or eggnog fillings.
Germans love their Sekt, their word for all kinds of sparkling wine. You can expect a toast to the new year at midnight at the very least. Another traditional drink is called Feuerzangenbowle, literally translated as “flaming fire-tongs punch.” It is based on the Christmas favorite Glühwein (mulled wine), but rum, citrus fruits like oranges and lemons, as well as spices like cinnamon and cloves are added.
Whether you want to buy some Berliners at the bakery, get the ingredients for Feuerzangenbowle, or find the perfect luck token for a hostess, make sure you plan ahead a little! In Germany there is a half day off on December 31st and a full day off on January 1st. Most shops will be closed after 12:00 or 13:00 on New Year’s Eve, and some won’t open either day.
It’s common in Germany to send a New Year’s card to family and friends. This may include wishes for good luck, happiness, health, and so on in the new year. Some people also use the card as an opportunity to give updates about the events and activities in their lives over the past year. If you’re used to sending Christmas cards, consider using your stay in Germany as an excuse for a bonus week to get them done!