German Silvester Traditions

written on 28/12/2020
by Evi Rauscher

In Germany, the turn of the year is associated with many customs and traditions which have been passed on for centuries. Many of them even go back to Germanic roots.

These customs or traditions vary throughout the country. They have, however, one thing in common: the longing for happiness, health and good living.

Superstitions, customs and party trends: How do people typically celebrate on December 31st in Germany?

The origin of Silvester (New Year’s Eve)

Germans call New Year's Eve "Silvester," in honour of the saint Pope Sylvester I, who died in Rome on 31st December 335. Sylvester is patron saint of domestic animals and is invoked for a good harvest and a happy new year.

It has almost been forgotten that New Year’s Day has not always been January 1st.

Its date moved around for a long time: in the Middle Ages, the New Year began on Christmas Day, later on Epiphany, January 6th.

It was not until 1582, with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, that most of Europe began the new year on the first day of January.

Most probably, the German term “zwischen den Jahren (between the years)” is owed to this calendar confusion.

Fireworks and Silvester firecrackers

As in many European countries,  it is also customary in Germany to welcome the New Year with a pompous fireworks display.

Whether loud firecrackers or spectacular light rockets: fireworks in the sky are simply part of it. 

Originally, the custom came from the ancient Germanic tribes who used to drive away evil spirits at the turn of the year with noise and drums.

Today, this custom has been replaced by firecrackers and rockets and is mainly used to enjoy the extraordinary spectacle in the sky at New Year.

In addition to the fireworks, in some places there is also New Year's shooting with guns. Another sound at midnight on New Year’s Eve beside the fireworks is the clanging and bonging of church bells.

Do’s and don’ts

Based on superstition and old customs, there are several do's and don'ts for the day of Silvester:

Don't have washing on the clothesline! Washing clothes in particular would be dubious according to old traditions, since evil spirits increasingly dare to come out of their hiding places on the winter solstice.

Wotan (Odin), the god of the dead and storms in North Germanic traditions, is therefore up to mischief with his devilish army on New Year's Eve and would be very annoyed if his flock got tangled up in the washing lines.

Therefore, it's better not to do any laundry and not to annoy the gods, so that happiness can find its way in the new year.

Don’t annoy poultry (esp. geese)! Otherwise, according to an old belief, luck will fly away with the goose in the New Year.

Don’t eat fish! According to the legend, non-believers who were around Pope Sylvester I choked on fish bones.

Therefore, superstition says that on New Year's Eve fish should be avoided or at least eaten with caution. Another superstition cancels these fears, however.

Carps are considered a lucky charm. This fish is therefore a typical Silvester dish for many Germans. It is believed that keeping a carp scale in your wallet guarantees that it will be filled with cash all year.

Eat Sauerkraut or lentil soup! The lentils represent little coins, but why Sauerkraut? I don’t know. 

However, eating the latter is apparently a must in some parts of Germany to ensure financial prosperity in the New Year.

A Glimpse into the future

In Germany, we have a number of traditions that help shorten the wait until midnight on Silvester year after year.

Customs that supposedly predict the future for the coming year are especially popular. One popular variant of this is lead casting.

Here, pieces of lead are heated over a flame and, after liquefying, poured into a bowl of water. The resulting shapes are assigned to different figures which predict the future with their meaning.

In 2018, the European Union set a new limit for lead content in products. As a result, lead casting was banned.

Those who do not want to give up looking into the future by interpreting figures, can use wax or tin instead of lead.

Cheerio, Miss Sophie!

Another tradition in Germany is the legendary TV show "Dinner for One" with the old lady Miss Sophie and her butler James who gets more and more drunk as her 90th Birthday dinner progresses.

In 1963, this 18-minute sketch by English comedian Freddie Frinton was shown on German television for the first time.

Since then, it has drawn millions of Germans to their television screens every year on New Year's Eve.

In 1988, it was even entered in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most repeated television production.

While the cult sketch became the most repeated program in TV history in Germany, Miss Sophie and her butler James and the famous quote: "The same procedure as every year, James!", which almost everyone in Germany knows and associates with New Year's Eve, are, incidentally, virtually unknown in the UK.

Enjoy the show in the hessian dialect or with two famous German comedians.

Decoration and lucky charms

There are many things that help to bring good luck on New Year’s Eve.

- Lucky penny: Actually, in times of the euro, it should be called "lucky cent," but that has not yet caught on. It stands for luck and financial wealth in the new year. "Wer den Pfennig nicht ehrt, ist des Talers’ nicht wert (He who does not honour the penny is not worth the thaler)," states a popular saying.

- Horseshoe: If you hang it over the front door, it is supposed to protect house and garden from misfortune. However, it is very important that it must not be bought, but must be found!

- Chimney sweep: Traditionally, chimney sweeps went through the streets on New Year's Day and wished a happy new year. As a symbol, they are said to bring good luck even today.

- Four-leaf clover: Since clover usually has three leaves, the four-leaf clover is extremely rare and only found with very good luck. It represents good luck and hope.

- Lucky Pig: the sweet version made of marzipan is very popular. It is considered a symbol of fertility and thus represents wealth and prosperity. The term "Er hat Schwein gehabt" means that someone had a lot of luck.

- Ladybird: as the messenger of Maria, the mother of Jesus, it is said to protect children and heal the sick.

Many of these symbols are available in different variations everywhere on Silvester, for instance as a Marzipan pig or a flower pot with clover and a chimney sweep.

Whether you believe the individual elements or not is a matter of opinion. In any case, every year they embellish New Year's Eve in a typical way and are charming little gifts for people who mean a lot to you.

Typical dishes and Silvester drinks

Today in Germany, joint activities with family and friends on Silvester are particularly popular. These include certain forms of food, such as fondue, in which pieces of meat are cooked in oil in a pot directly on the table and eaten with sauces and side dishes.

Even more popular is raclette, which originated in Switzerland, where a wide variety of ingredients are individually baked with cheese in small pans.

This type of dinner is perfect for New Year's Eve because it allows you to eat and talk for hours while you wait for midnight together.

When it comes to drinks, in addition to champagne or Sekt (German sparkling wine), wine, or beer, Feuerzangenbowle is a popular traditional German Silvester’s drink.

The only drawback for this tasty punch is that it is more complicated to prepare than a normal bottled or canned beverage.

Part of the popularity of Feuerzangenbowle is based on a classic novel of the same name by Heinrich Spoerl (1887-1955), and the 1944 film version starring the popular German actor Heinz Rühmann.

The hot punch drink is based on Glühwein (mulled wine), plus these additional ingredients: Rum, Orangen, Zitronen, Zimt und Gewürznelken (rum, oranges, lemons, cinnamon and cloves).

Guten Rutsch (Happy New Year)

The last ten seconds of the old year are counted out loud at many celebrations.

At twelve o'clock sharp, the champagne glasses clink and people toast the turn of the year, wishing each other luck and a happy new year.

The toast with champagne glasses has become an established tradition and marks the change into the new year. But sayings like "Prosit Neujahr" or "Guten Rutsch (Good slide)" are not just meaningless phrases, they each have interesting backgrounds.

”good slide” does not mean slide into the new year. The saying comes from the Yiddish word "Gut Rosch" which means beginning. 

Accordingly, one wishes not (only) a good transition into the new year but altogether a good beginning and much success for planned projects.

“Prosit” on the other hand is a Latin word and means something like "May it be of success".

So, PROSIT NEUJAHR to all of you, may New Year 2021 be happy, healthy and successful!