Why They Sometimes Call New Year’s Eve “Sylvester”


If you go to a New Year’s Eve dinner or party in a continental European country – and for all I know, probably in Mexico and Latin America as well (I’ve never done New Year’s in Mexico) you’ll find it’s probably called Sylvester or San Silvestro or something of that sort.  What is that about? Well, December 31, the day, just happens to be the day on which the Catholic Church commemorates one St. Sylvester.  Who was he?  He was the Bishop of Rome at the time of Constantine’s conversion.  He was not at the Council of Nicaea, but sent representatives. Constantine himself moved his capital from Milan to his New Rome – Constantinople – on the site of the old town of Byzantion.  He established a patriarchate there, and had presumably a better relationship with it than with the bishopric of Rome.

But Sylvester, later on, got a notoriety that was not his fault, but was because of a forgery.  In the Middle Ages a document called the Donation of Constantine was circulated, that claimed that the Emperor Constantine had deeded to Sylvester and his successors lordship over the entire western half of the Roman Empire.  This document was one of those used in Rome’s claim to headship over the Western Church.  But about 1440 one Lorenzo Valla of Naples, being a student of Classical Latin, declared publicly that the Latin of the Donation document was clearly eighth century Latin and not fourth century Latin, using some words unknown in fourth century Latin.  It would be like if someone came along with what he claimed was a manuscript of a hitherto undiscovered Shakespeare play.  But in this manuscript, the characters regularly greet each other with “Yo, wassup dude?” instead of “How now, cuz?”  I think most of us would be rather skeptical of the true Shakespearean origins of the manuscript.  Valla’s conclusions were so conclusive that by the time of the Reformation in the next century, the Catholic Church did not base any of its claims whatsoever on the Donation of Constantine, and that document was no longer even an issue.  So now you know.

January 1 was not always New Year’s Day, by the way.  In ancient Rome New Year’s Day was March 1, and then during much of the medieval and early modern period New Year’s Day was March 25, the feast of the Assumption, as I pointed out in a previous post.  January 1 has always been, however, the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus, or of the Holy Name of Jesus, because it is on the eighth day that Jewish babies are circumcised and given their names.

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