Why They Sometimes Call New Year’s Eve “Sylvester” January 1, 2010


If you go to a New Year’s Eve dinner or party in a continental European country – and for all I know, probably in Mexico and Latin America as well (I’ve never done New Year’s in Mexico) you’ll find it’s probably called Sylvester or San Silvestro or something of that sort.  What is that about? Well, December 31, the day, just happens to be the day on which the Catholic Church commemorates one St. Sylvester.  Who was he?  He was the Bishop of Rome at the time of Constantine’s conversion.  He was not at the Council of Nicaea, but sent representatives. Constantine himself moved his capital from Milan to his New Rome – Constantinople – on the site of the old town of Byzantion.  He established a patriarchate there, and had presumably a better relationship with it than with the bishopric of Rome.

But Sylvester, later on, got a notoriety that was not his fault, but was because of a forgery.  In the Middle Ages a document called the Donation of Constantine was circulated, that claimed that the Emperor Constantine had deeded to Sylvester and his successors lordship over the entire western half of the Roman Empire.  This document was one of those used in Rome’s claim to headship over the Western Church.  But about 1440 one Lorenzo Valla of Naples, being a student of Classical Latin, declared publicly that the Latin of the Donation document was clearly eighth century Latin and not fourth century Latin, using some words unknown in fourth century Latin.  It would be like if someone came along with what he claimed was a manuscript of a hitherto undiscovered Shakespeare play.  But in this manuscript, the characters regularly greet each other with “Yo, wassup dude?” instead of “How now, cuz?”  I think most of us would be rather skeptical of the true Shakespearean origins of the manuscript.  Valla’s conclusions were so conclusive that by the time of the Reformation in the next century, the Catholic Church did not base any of its claims whatsoever on the Donation of Constantine, and that document was no longer even an issue.  So now you know.

January 1 was not always New Year’s Day, by the way.  In ancient Rome New Year’s Day was March 1, and then during much of the medieval and early modern period New Year’s Day was March 25, the feast of the Assumption, as I pointed out in a previous post.  January 1 has always been, however, the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, or of the Holy Name of Jesus, because it is on the eighth day that Jewish babies are circumcised and given their names.

One Comments
vitaetamori 01/07/2010

Interesting, Howard.

My mother, being Austrian, grew up celebrating “Silvesterfeier,” literally “Silvester Celebrations.”

Of course, from one of point of view, St. Sylvester’s feast day falling onto the last day of the year can be seen as merely the result the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, yet Christian writers have often seen greater significance in his place at the end of the calendar year.

Here is one particularly beautiful one:

Pope Sylvester, who lived at the time of Constantine
By Dom Gueranger

Although the place of honor in the service of the King belongs to the Martyrs, the Confessors also fought manfully for the glory of His name and the spreading of His Kingdom. They are crowned with the crown of justice, and Jesus, who gave it to them, has made it part of His own glory that they should be near His throne.

The Church would, therefore, grace this glorious Christmas Octave with the name of one of her children, who should represent at Bethlehem the whole class of her unmartyred Saints. She chose St. Sylvester, a Confessor who governed the Church of Rome, and therefore the universal Church; a Pontiff whose reign was long and peaceful; a Servant of Jesus Christ adorned with every virtue, who was sent to edify and guide the world immediately after those fearful combats that had lasted 300 years, during which millions of Christians had gained victory by martyrdom under the leadership of 30 Popes – predecessors of Sylvester – and they, too, all Martyrs.

So it is that Sylvester is a messenger of the peace which Christ came to give to the world, of which the Angels sang on Christmas Night. He is the friend of Constantine; he confirms the Council of Nicaea; he organizes the discipline of the Church for the new era in which she is now entering; the era of peace. His predecessors in the See of Peter imagined Jesus in His sufferings; Sylvester represented Jesus in His triumph. Sylvester’s feast during this Octave reminds us that the Divine Child who lies wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and is the object of Herod’s persecution, is, notwithstanding all these humiliations, the Prince of Peace, the Father of the world to come.


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