Monday, December 31


Not the Bat of Saint Sylvester

St. Sylvester receives from the Emperor Constantine the world's first cone-shaped party hat, on New Year's Eve, AD 317.

One of my most memorable New Year's Eve celebrations was a trip I took with my parents while in high school to Brussels that has made me fond of things Belgian (or Flemish/Walloon, since it appears to be splitsville for the kingdom these days) ever since. One thing that stuck in my mind--along with the frosty air, people's breath steaming in tomb-cold Gothic churches, and the enormous life-size Nativity Scene in the Grand-Place with its blonde, mannequinish Mary--was that the dinner-menus for that particularly festive evening were titled "Le Réveillon de Saint-Sylvestre," not "New Year's Eve." (The term means the "long festive dinner of St. Sylvester," not "the bat of St. Sylvester," as the opera Die Die Fledermaus is based on the French play, Le Réveillon, which means The Dinner Party.) There's something delightful to the realization that in Francophonia this most secular of holidays--the ecclesial year begins with Advent and the old civil calendar started on the feast of the Annunciation before things got boring--still has a bit of old Catholicism clinging to its sequined skirts.

I believe Hungarians also call it something similar--though this is based on the scrupulously-researched souce called "a flyer in a language I can't read stuck to the front window of the Hungarian cafe in my neighborhood that looked kind of festive and had the word 'Sylvester' somewhere in it." Brazil, which also has its own réveillons on New Year's Day proper, has its biggest marathon today, the appropriately-named Corrida Internacional de São Silvestre, though I can't really see any connection to the fourth-century pope save for the date.

Hispanics such as my grandmother celebrate New Years by attempting to eat twelve grapes at midnight, presumably in an effort to accidentally choke themselves. (If you are Cuban, of course, you can't go swimming for probably about six hours afterwards, but that's for a wholly different reason.) Rather than being a cute old custom, it turns out it was invented in 1909 by a bunch of Valencian grape-sellers (no pun intended) trying to sell off excess stock. (By the way, I wonder a little about the Wikipedia page on New Year's customs as it lists "Auld Lang Syne" as being by Guy Lombardo rather than Bobbie Burns, though I suppose I get their point.)

As to St. Sylvester himself, Evelyn Waugh in his decidedly weird historical novel Helena, tossed in a joke by one of the characters about Sylvester being so boring that if he ever got canonized, his feast day would have to be on the last day of the year, which is a little unfair as St. Sylvester was quite a big deal in the Middle Ages as being on the receiving end of the spurious Donation of Constantine (but, as they say, if it's not true, it should be) and is now ranked as the eighth-longest-reigning pope of all time, reigning 21 years, 11 months and 1 day (8,005 days).

Now if anyone can find a way to link this to Prince Orlovsky's gnomic utterances or, more pertinently, dropping disco balls in Times Square, you'll be my hero.

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