The Sylvester Syndrome

January 31, 314: Sylvester I whose name is “the Israeli term for New Year’s eve celebrations” began his papacy.

Silvester or Sylvester (also spelled szilveszter, sylvester or sylwester) is the day of the Feast of Pope Sylvester I, a saint who served as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 314 to 335 and oversaw both the First Council of Nicaea and Roman Emperor Constantine I’s conversion to Christianity. The feast day is held on the anniversary of Sylvester’s death, December 31st, a date that, since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, has coincided with New Year’s Eve.

As a result, many Europeans call New Year’s Eve “Sylvester.” When European Jews started to emigrate to the Land of Israel starting in the nineteenth century, the new year in their new country was, of course, Rosh Hashanah. But they still wanted to mark the changing of the secular year as in their old countries, so they continued to celebrate “Sylvester.”

Over time, the practice grew in popularity – especially after the aliyah in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union, where Christmas was banned and everyone celebrated Sylvester instead – to the extent that Sylvester parties are now held in many bars, clubs, restaurants and peoples’ homes each year. As more and more Israelis consume American and European popular culture, they have also become more familiar with other holidays such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.

Of course, it would not be Israel without a controversy! Many religious and some secular Israelis do not celebrate the holiday because it is not a Jewish one. And while there are not too many confirmable details about the life of Pope Sylvester, there are some anti-Semitic stories. According to this U.S. News & World Report article from years ago:

“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.”

Over the following centuries, the New Year reportedly brought much anti-Semitic activity:

On New Year’s Day 1577, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, under pain of death, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services.  On New Year’s Day 1578, Gregory signed into law a tax forcing Jews to pay for the support of a “House of Conversion” to convert Jews to Christianity.  On New Year’s 1581, Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate all sacred literature from the Roman Jewish community.  Thousands of Jews were murdered in the campaign.

Throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, January 1 – supposedly the day on which Jesus’ circumcision initiated the reign of Christianity and the death of Judaism – was reserved for anti-Jewish activities: synagogue and book burnings, public tortures, and simple murder.

So, whether one celebrates Sylvester is up to the individual Israeli. In fact, if you ask Israelis why they celebrate Sylvester, they’ll most likely shrug and reply, “Life is hard here – we’ll take any excuse to party!”

If you are in Israel, though, make sure you do not party too hard – since Sylvester is not an official holiday and January 1 is just a regular day, you’ll have to go to work or class!

Presented here for your consideration is a 12-lira stamp issued by the Vatican City postal authority in 1953 honoring Pope Sylvester I (Scott No. 194).

Pope Sylvester I - Vatican City - 1953

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