A German New Year…

This post may seem a bit late, not coming before New Year’s Eve, but in my opinion it is better this way, since I now have three Silvester’s under my belt, I feel I have better authority to speak about such matters. Plus, I was on vacation – when am I not really?! No, kidding aside, I have thoroughly enjoyed sleeping in and staying up late and wonder how I will ever be able to go back to work – tomorrow.

I’ve written about the New Year before, specifically last year‘s big one because we stayed local. This year we did much the same, but more low-key and less fancy. I thought I would take this time to share what I’ve learned about Silvester (New Year’s Eve) here in Germany. For a more general, but still interesting history of the international holiday, you can look to Simple to Remember-Judism Online‘s article about a “History of New Years“.

Important saying:

“ein gutes neues Jahr/Happy New Year”

Prosit Neujahr!/Happy New Year”

Guten Rutsch!/ Happy Slide into the New Year”

Important vocabulary:

“Neujahrsvorsätze/New Year’s Resolution”

der Jahresanfang/Jahresbeginn/The beginning of the year”

die Mitternacht/Midnight”

um Mitternacht/at Midnight”

Sekt/Sparkling wine” (Only sparkling wine from the French region of Champagne can legally be called champagne.)

Silvester/der Silvesterabend/New Year’s Eve”

der Trinkspruch, der Toast/a toast (to make a toast)”

DINNER FOR ONE

The first thing I learned after coming to Germany is that this video is a cultural tradition (Dinner for One, also known as Der 90 Geburtstag (The 90th Birthday):

This video, which is generally aired or watched in is original language (English), at least in Germany, was immortalized by Guinness Book of World Records (at least until 1995, when it discontinued the category) because it had “become the most frequently repeated TV program ever (wikipedia)” . The skit is also popular in Scandinavia, Australia, Austria, South Africa and Switzerland – but you’d be hard-pressed to find Americans and Britons who know what the heck you’re talking about if you were to ask them about the title or the signature phrases from the skit:

“The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”

“The same procedure as every year James.”

According to a December 30th, 2005 Slate article by Jude Stewart, which describes the skits’ history, its introduction into German popular culture really started back in the 1960’s, even though the skit dates back to the 1920’s:

In 1962, German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld stumbled on Dinner for One in Blackpool’s seaside circuit. Frankenfeld was so charmed that he invited actors Freddie Frinton and May Warden to perform the sketch on his live TV show Guten Abend, Peter Frankenfeld. The now-classic black-and-white recording dates from a 1963 live performance in Hamburg’s Theater am Besenbinderhof. (So deep runs the love for this broadcast that last year Frankfurter Rundschau interviewed a woman whose piercing laugh from the sidelines has achieved its own cult status.) Audiences clamored for repeats, and the skit fit nicely as a time-filler between larger broadcasts, so the German network Norddeutscher Rundfunk and its affiliates ran the snippet repeatedly in the 1960s, even reaching audiences behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. The skit settled into its current New Year’s Eve slot in 1972 (“The Mystery of Dinner for One“).

Stewart goes on to explain exactly how or perhaps why this video in particular has become such a fixture of German culture:

First, the slapstick of Dinner for One transcends the language barrier. Second, it offers a slight thrill of the verboten (forbidden): After all, it features a very crazy old lady, a bevy of lecherous male friends, a big stench of post-WWII death, a hell of a lot of drinking, and senior-citizen sex. A third notion, floated by Der Spiegel and the  Guardian alike last year (in 2003), is that the film plays to Germans’ worst idea of the British upper class: dotty, pigheadedly traditional, forever marinated in booze despite titles. The BBC counters with the more politic theory that Dinner for One “has become synonymous with British humor, on a par with Mr. Bean.” British TV executives see it as fit only for foreigners, or they would rush to broadcast it themselves. Why Germany finds it so funny and the British don’t is, according to Der Spiegel‘s Sebastian Knauer, “one of the last unsolved questions of European integration.”

After my first time watching it, the first thing I thought of was Mr. Bean, which I did enjoy a bit as a child but today, I could pass up and not bat an eye. Additionally, that first year I really didn’t understand the point. The skit really has nothing to do with the season, or Germany for that matter – but it is an institution of sorts here. Now, after three years of viewing the skit, I chalk it up simply to tradition.

It has become tradition in my family to not give each family member a Christmas present but to collect them over the course of the year (or save the items you want to discard, say from the kitchen – appliance upgrade or a new set of china) and then wrap them in really wonderful wrapping paper with pretty bows and play BINGO until all the gifts are gone. Why do we do it, who really knows; my family has a rather dark and dry sense of humor and most of us learned not to waste and to thoroughly enjoy thrift stores. We also don’t generally send cards, but when we do – they are often recycled or blank, so that you can recycle them yourself. They are almost always accompanied with a letter of some kind, to make up for the blankness of the card itself. Yet, to ask why would sort of defeat the purpose. It is just what we do.

So, this English skit – it’s just what the German’s do.

The skit has become such a fixture in German popular culture that it has spawned many parodies and reproductions including this popular political sketch from 2012:

Since learning about this video, I’ve also learned that the reason the German’s (and some others) call the night “Silvester”.

“SILVESTER”

According to Simple to Remember-Judism Online‘s article about a “History of New Years” who republished information originally found in US News and World Report on December 23, 1996:

“Sylvester,” was the name of the “Saint” and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.).  The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem.  At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of viciously anti-Semitic legislation.  All Catholic “Saints” are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory.  December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day – hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory.

Additionally, if you would like to learn about the commercial history or Christmas in America, or the Holiday Season in America, you can look to an older article from the same edition of US News and World Report, from 15.12.1996 by Jeffery L. Sheeler titled, “In Search of Christmas“, which I came across while researching this blog post.

OTHER GERMAN “SILVESTER” TRADITIONS

BLEIGIESSEN

Another tradition is Bleigiessen  or “lead casting” where a small piece of lead is melted over a flame in an old spoon and dropped into a bowl of cold water. Depending on whatever shape the metal takes in the cold water, you should then be able to tell your fortune for the next year.  Here is a nice link to what a number of possible shapes might mean. I suppose the trick is being able to actually tell what your blob of metal looks like, since it is left up to a great deal of interpretation. Try as I might I have not yet been able to find items that would help me carry out this New Year’s Eve fortune-telling among my friends here, in spite of being told that versions of this lead casting are sold readily around town, “everywhere”. However,  I’ve been looking for two years now and have been unable to find them in the nearby shops.

GOOD LUCK CHARMS

What I have been able to find is an abundance of mazipan pigs, four-leaf clovers, ladybugs, horseshoes and dice. I’ve heard that you can do the same thing with a plastic or metallic pig that you would do with metal forms (Bleigiessen). I imagine that sometimes the metal is rather expensive and dangerous to melt too.

The pig to Germans is a symbol of good luck, prosperity and well-being because the pig is such a hearty animal that can live on pasture, farm waste and crop residues. The idea goes that if a family has a pig, they will never go hungry. German’s perpetuate the myth of the pig by consuming the marzipan variety or actual schweinefleische (pork meat or literally, pig flesh) to reap the same hearty benefits of luck, prosperity and well-being.

Through some internet research, I’ve been able to find general information about the following good luck charms, but the information isn’t specific to Germany.

  • das vierblättriges Kleeblatt/four-leaf clovers: is reminiscent of the cross, so favorable for Christians. Is said to ward off madness and to recognize demons.
  • der Marienkäfer/ladybugs: free a person from day-to-day problems, lessen your burdens, offer more luck and give you patience with those around you.
  • das Hufeisen/horseshoes: are said to protect an individuals’ house and property from thieves and strangers.
  • der Würfel/dice: it all has to do with betting/gambling. Have faith in the dice and they will bring you riches.

FIREWORKS

All the German fireworks I have seen have clearly out-shined any I’d seen in private hands in the US. Seriously, I find it rather funny that with all the supposed rules Germany has, Germans find interesting ways to let their hair down, and massive fireworks is just another example! If Americans purchased the type of fireworks that Germans are allowed, they would probably be arrested, or blow their own hands up – or those of their drunk buddies. However, for 350 days of the year (give or take) fireworks are illegal in Germany unless you can obtain a special permit: hello insurances (sic), Germans love ’em!

According to The Local, an English-speaking German news and culture online newspaper, this time of the year “Bring[s] very little sun to the northern regions, the twelve Rauhnächte were considered days outside of time, when the solar and lunar years were allowed to re-synchronise. Silvester took place right in the middle of the twelve Rauhnächte and was the night of the god Wotan’s wild hunt, a time of particular commotion and celebration (Elizabeth Norgard, Celebrating Silvester in Germany, 31.12.12).” I can attest to this lack of light. In high winter, the sunrise on January 1st was at 8:24 am and sunset, at 4:33 pm (via Time and Date.com). Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a thing here!

Making noise on this night is key, so fireworks, crackers, and other noisy fun was encouraged to help with the hunt. Additionally, these Germanic tribes thought the sun was on a wheel in the sky and during this time of year, the wheel would stop, so fireworks and bonfires would help bring the ‘sun’ as a sort of sign of protest.

Finally, because of this hunt, no work is to be done on New Year’s Eve. The idea is that everything should stand still on earth, especially because if the god Wotan and his hunting devils went ravaging around the villages and came across laundry lines and people working in their homes, it would disrupt the hunt and make the god very angry.

The largest fireworks display in Germany take place in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate and usually have tens of thousands of people in attendance.

BELLS

So, many of the Christmas and New Year’s traditions around the world are derived from pagan celebrations. Specifically in Germany, beginning around the 24th of December is die Rauhnächte (smokey night), or Die Zwölf Nächte (the twelve nights – sound familiar?! It should since it has been moved to the 12 days leading up to Christmas thanks to Christianity and popular culture), which is a time when the dead are to be allowed to visit the living and fortunes for the year were frequently told among Germanic tribes. This time was used for winter solstice, 12 days of it, from 24th of December to 6th of January and it would usually come to a climax on the 5th of January, when houses would be ‘smoked out’ driving the demons and spirits from villagers homes, back to the afterlife.

In Austria, the bell of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna ring out and are followed by the playing of the Donauwalzer (“The Blue Danube“) by Johann Strauss II, to which many dance to in the streets. Another popular song played at or around midnight in Austria is die Fledermaus (The Bat), also by Johann Strauss II.

Bells can also be heard beginning to play either just before midnight or at midnight on the spot. We recently had American friends visit us who said that by the time they leave they wanted to understand the rhythm of the bells, or why they heck they seem to ring randomly. Really, the bells in our town generally begin sometime in the morning, I think about 7:15, and then can be heard at length being rung at 15 and 45 after the hour. On Sundays, they call people to church service and daily only ring once or twice at the hour or half-hour.

At midnight on January 1st, the bells ring out  to ‘ring in the new year’ and likely ringing out the demons and spirits – to ring in the new.

RACLETTE/FONDUE

Finally, Raclette or Fondue are traditional German/Austrian/Swiss dishes associated with Silvester. A Raclette is a table top heater with a grill or covered, flat range on top with space for large flat spoons below the heating element for cheese to be placed on and melted. It is a lot of fun and really easy to prepare items beforehand that people can self-service and cook on the grill to their liking.

Fondue is well, fondue. Melted cheese in a pot or bowl served with cooked meats or raw vegetables dipped into the cheese with skewers. This can also be done with melted chocolate and fruits, marshmallows and any thing else that would go good with the melted chocolate.

OTHER COOKING TRADITIONS

For more cooking/baking traditions in Germany you can look to the German Food Guide‘s information on Silvester as it has more food traditions than I’ve mentioned here, including:

  • Eating Lentil soup for lunch (each lentil representing a coin you will receive in the new year).
  • Eating sauerkraut
  • Eating fish or other seafood
  • Abstaining from poultry unless you are from Rheinland-Pfalz
  • Soup
  • Salad and bread
  • Bread and cakes

What do you do to celebrate the New Year?

Did I miss a tradition here, please let me know in the comments.

3 thoughts on “A German New Year…

  1. Pingback: What I know about Germans… | living the american dream in europe

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