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History Lesson
A Jew’s Guide to New Year’s Eve

As everyone knows, the evening of December 31 is New Year’s Eve. But why is December 31 New Year’s Eve? And why is the next year the number 2014?

Published on: December 31, 2013
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  • TommyTwo

    “Now, it so happens that the Pope at the time, whose name was Sylvester, convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem.”

    Plus ça change…

    “That’s why Israelis today call the secular New Year’s Eve revelries and New Year’s Day (since Jews mark the beginning of a day at sunset) ‘Sylvester.’ (Why they do this I don’t really know …”

    I figure that “New Year’s” is already taken.

    “in medieval Europe the night of December 31 was often reserved for synagogue and Hebrew book burnings, torture and standard-issue murder-for-sport.”

    “Sylvester promulgated a host of new anti-Semitic legislation.”

    And yet Tweety still survives.

  • ddh

    In most of the Catholic and Protestant areas of the former German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, New Year’s is called “Sylvester”–whether in German, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, or Slovenian.

    • amgarfinkle

      Right. I think the Jewish emigres to Palestine way back probably brought that with them.

      • Kavanna

        Yes, as a Chabad rabbi once explained to me.

        The Soviet state promoted New Year’s Day as a secular alternative to Christmas. That, and I think revolutionary France did something similar. That may be the origin of the idea that New Year’s Day is a secular holiday. Before the French Revolution, there were no secular holidays, at least not in the sense we think of. Certain national days were marked, but they weren’t yet holidays to displace religious days.

  • MRD1037

    Here is another twist.

    Russian (or at least Russian Jews) celebrate the New Year (Novi God) as a family holiday with a big meal and a non-Christmas Christmas tree. Apparently it was very popular non soviet but secular holiday in Soviet times. So now Russian Jews who emigrated in Israel want to celebrate a holiday with something that to non-Russian Israelis seems like a Christmas tree and Santa Claus. This leads to some cultural misunderstandings.

  • amoose1959

    Garfinkle again rallying the troops with his Christian bashing and kafkatrapping anti-semitism. He suffers from Jewcentric pathology.

    • TommyTwo

      [Feeding the troll.]

      Kafkatrapping: “A form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: ‘Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism,homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.'”

      Garfinkle, in the relevant context of Jews and New Year’s, discusses the incontrovertible anti-Semitism of the Church in the past. He explicitly states that this is not true for living persons.

      If anyone here is guily of kafkatrapping, it’s you.

      (Granted, Garfinkle can be read as casting aspersions on the very few who celebrate New Year’s in knowing memory of Sylvester. In which case, if you are so devout and wish to devote a day to an ancient figure, I would think it behooves you as a religiously serious person to consider his bad as well as good sides.)

      • amoose1959

        “Garfinkle, in the relevant context of Jews and New Year’s, discusses the incontrovertible anti-Semitism of the Church in the past.”
        Ah but like every good Jewish parent tells their kids ” don’t ever forget the past”
        Ya think that Garfinkle was trying to be a good Jewish parent?
        I like Garfinkle and have read some of his books -at least he recognizes Jewcentric pathology on both sides.
        In the meantime T T don’t forget to sniff under every rock.

  • Kavanna



    Many Americans live in predominantly Protestant parts of the country with few Catholics. Holidays such as Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and New Year’s have lost all connection to their historical roots or to any religious meaning. That is true even in the most deeply religious parts of the nation. The history of each holiday is interesting, but nothing more.

    Mr. Garfinkle’s arguments do make more sense in regions with heavily Catholic populations.

  • mbermangorvine

    It’s a good thing the Council of Nicaea isn’t meeting today, or the Council of Europe would demand that it name January 1 “the Feast of the Violation of the Infant Jesus’ Rights to Bodily Integrity.”

  • PKCasimir

    Julius Caesar did not come up with the name for January. According to Roman tradition, Numa Pompilius, legendary King of Rome and successor to Romulus, reformed Romulus’ calendar and added January and February to it. Later, much earlier than Caesar, January 1st was chosen as the first day of the new year as it was the day that the new Roman consuls entered office. But, like most things in the old Roman Republic where politics were flexible, if anything, sometimes the year started on March 1st.

  • Blaton Hardey

    -In Israel, January 1st is not a holiday and it’s mostly the Russians (1 mio.) who celebrate New Year’s Eve (and fancy cosmopolitans in Tel Aviv and American and French olim and … ). For all I know, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th generation Israelis ignore the date (besides adding “happy new year” to professional emails to westerners).

    -“Sylvester” is the word for New Year’s Eve used in Germany, Russia, France, Italy, (and lots of other countries).. I assume new Immigrants to Israel took it from there and kept using this word because, well, that’s what you called it. Also, December 31 was the day of Pope Sylvester’s funeral (…according to several wikipedia pages, but then again, I mistrust wikipedia and it might also be the case that the clergy simply claimed that was the day of his funeral later on.)

    • ddh

      “Sylvester” and its variants are used in areas where German, Hungarian,
      Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, and sometimes French are spoken, but
      not so much among Russian speakers (канун нового года or eve of the new year) or Italian speakers (capodanno or head of the year–somewhat Hebrew-sounding, no?).

      For the Russian Orthodox, January 2 is the Feast Day of St. Sylvester, and
      the Soviets promoted New Year’s as a Christmas substitute. In italy,
      only the German- and Slovenian-speaking minorities call New Year’s Eve

      • Blaton Hardey

        I have no personal experience of what Russians, Italians or French call that holiday; I simply saw that the word “Sylvester” appeared in these languages’ respective wikipedia-pages on New Year’s Eve.
        Capodanno does not sound very Hebrew to my ears; I’d rather like to think the term comes from “Capo” (Head), “de” (of) and “anno” (year) which are Latin words. (Which are the origin of many modern day English words such as Capitol, capitalism and annual, capisce?)

        • ddh

          The Hebrew for New Year is Rosh haShonah, which means head of the year.

          • Blaton Hardey

            Oh, I see. Perhaps “head of the year” was an old Roman way to put it, and that formulation was used later on by rabbis who sought to fill the Hebrew vocabulary with new words and phrases, simply translating word for word: rosh haShana.

          • ddh

            This year is 5774 in the Hebrew calendar. I doubt the Jews waited 3700 years for the Romans to show up in Judea in 63 BCE before figuring out what to call the beginning of the Jewish year, which is an important religious holiday.

          • Blaton Hardey

            Maybe “head of the year” was a symbol spread throughout the Mediterranean area… Do you know other languages that use this imagery?

      • Blaton Hardey

        … On the subject of Soviet X-mas, perhaps you could give me some leads on where to read further? I would very much like to know what Soviet Christmas (Marxmas?) looked like.

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