By Myra Lee Adams Goff —
Have you heard of Sylvester’s Abend? Have you heard of New Year’s Eve? Two names for the same event. To arrive at the Gregorian calendar that we and most European countries use was not an easy process. Many changes took place before the final calendar set up by Pope Gregory XIII was adopted.
Sylvester’s Abend was what the German emigrants called New Year’s Eve, or Dec. 31. The name “Sylvester” translates from Latin as “wild man.” The German “Abend” translates to “evening.” Sylvester’s Abend is named after a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 314 A.D. to 335 A.D. Ever since the Gregorian calendar was adopted by most of the world, the feast day celebrated Sylvester’s death on Dec. 31. The name Sylvester’s Abend was used locally for many years but eventually changed to New Year’s Eve. The local German American Society still uses Sylvester’s Abend.
Speaking of Sylvester’s Abend traditions, some of the interpreters at the Sophienburg who grew up in Germany remember a practice carried out on New Year’s Eve called Bleigiessen or “lead pouring.” It resembles the practice of reading tea leaves to predict the next year’s events. A small amount of lead is melted in a spoon over a candle. Then the molten lead is poured into a bowl of water and the pattern that forms predicts events of the coming year. There is a long list of what these forms could mean. Sounds like an entertaining game.
Advertisements in the old Neu Braunfelser Zeitung newspapers give a hint of how New Year’s Eve was celebrated locally. Dances at halls in town and in nearby settlements were prevalent. A popular early hall was Matzdorf Halle which eventually became Echo Hall and then finally, Eagles Hall. There were dances at Sweet Home Hall at Solms, Walhalla at Smithson’s Valley, Teutonia Halle, Anhalt, Landa Park, Reinarz Hall, Schwab Hall, Lenzen Hall, and smaller ones. Downtown Seekatz Opera House, built in 1901, was a popular dance hall with its stage, dressing rooms, kitchen, and large main floor with seats that could be removed easily for dances. An added feature was a balcony for onlookers and private club rooms on the second floor in the front of the building. At midnight the fire siren would blow.
All of the dances furnished trappings of the celebration of the coming of the New Year with noisemakers and fireworks. Designed to ward off evil, fireworks and noisemakers go back to ancient times.
In a Sophienburg Reflections program, the late Kola Zipp recalls a custom in her younger years (early 1920s) that had to do with New Year’s Eve. She called the practice “New Year’s Callers.” Young men would hire a carriage from the local livery stable and go out on New Year’s afternoon to visit girls. Girls would stay at home to welcome them and offer the boys wine. (That’s a switch.) These New Year’s Callers would visit and then move on to the next house.
Marie Offermann and her sister Jeanette Felger often went to dances at Echo Hall as children with their parents. There was even baby-sitting service in one of the back rooms. People brought food that was placed in the basement under the stage. New Years was a dress-up time. Look at the picture.
New Year’s Eve is celebrated around the world, often with strange customs, from throwing dishes, to wearing red underwear, to congregating in a cemetery to ring in the New Year with departed loved ones. In France the wind direction predicted the year’s crops and weather and in Spain if one could consume 12 grapes in 12 seconds from midnight, good luck would follow.
Since the invention of television and computers, millions watch the New Year’s celebration at Times Square in New York. Since its beginning in 1907, a huge 12-foot diameter ball suspended above Times Square is lowered. When it reaches the bottom of the tower, it is midnight.
No New Year’s Eve celebration would be complete without the ever-popular traditional song, “Auld Lang Syne.” Poet Robert Burns is given credit for translating the Scottish song. Here’s the last verse of Burns’ rendition:
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!(friend)
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!(give us your hand)
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,(take a good-will draught)
For auld lang syne,(long, long ago)
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
Sources: Around the Sophienburg; Sophienburg Museum and Archives Collection
Originally appeared December 2012.