As many of you are probably already aware, in Israel the New Year begins sometime in September or October – Tishri 1 on the Jewish calendar. This day is knows as Rosh HaShannah, the Head of the Year, and it is one of the most important days of the year in Israel.
However, Israel is not an island unto itself. Traditions from other cultures have made their way to Israel. One of these is New Year’s Eve – as it occurs on December 31st. While the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Israel are not on the level as other places and January 1 is a work-day, many Israelis still enjoy marking the New Year.
In Hebrew December 31st and January 1st is called השנה האזרחית החדשה – HaShannah HaEzrahit HaHadashah – the civil New Year. This is quite a mouthful so it has come to be known simply as “Sylvester”.
So where did the term Sylvester originate? It most definitely does not come from Tweety’s Looney Tunes nemesis Sylvester the Cat (but wouldn’t it be fun if it did!). This term comes from immigrants from Germany and Poland, of which there are many in Israel. In these countries and others mostly in Eastern Europe the New Year is called Sylvester.
The actual term Sylvester refers to Pope Sylvester I, however to tell the whole story we have to back up in history. In 46 BCE Julius Caesar proclaimed that he was changing the calendar used by the Roman Empire. He altered the calendar to follow the tropical year or solar year meaning one year equals the time is takes the sun to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons.
Next he changed the number of months to 12 as there are 12 solar cycles within the larger cycle and thus keeping the months aligned to the seasons – July is always summer, December is always winter, etc. Finally, he moved the New Year to the month called January because it was named after the Roman idol Janus who was the deity of beginnings and gateways.
This calendar worked well. Therefore, in the 4th century when Constantine converted the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire, as his mother’s urging, he kept the Julian calendar. So now we have a firmly established date of the New Year as January 1 throughout all of Christendom. But where does Sylvester come in?
Pope Sylvester I’s pontificate occurred when Constantine was Roman Emperor. Christianity developed and grew substantially while he was Pope. However, he did convince Constantine to pass many anti-Semitic laws. Legend states that St Sylvester’s death occurred on December 31st in the final moments of the year. Because of his date of death and because Christianity had a sort of new beginning under his tenet, his saint day is December 31, New Year’s Eve.
The overwhelming cultural influence that Catholicism had on Europe caused many nations to refer to New Year’s Eve as Sylvester’s Day. This term became the common term for the New Year despite the religious connotations – and even the anti-Semitic ones. Therefore, when Jews from Eastern Europe immigrated en masse to Israel, they brought this term with them.
So today to clarify between the spiritual Jewish New Year and the secular New Year, Israelis call December 31 “Sylvester.” This is one of the wonderful things about Israelis – they are able to maintain their own traditions and identities, but adapt others as well as practical application needs.