The day of Saint Sylvester is the 31st of December, New Year’s Eve. In French and in German usage, the saint's name is synonymous with New Year’s Eve, party, booze, and fireworks. The village of St Silvester in Switzerland was named after the church dedicated to him. There, his day starts off with an old tradition dating back more than 400 years.
Saint Sylvester was bishop of Rome during the reign of Emperor Constantine. His greatest historical achievement was being buried on the 31st of December 335. And these are the two only historical facts that we know about him. But unlike many other saints of early church mythology, he actually existed. Everything outside of his job title and his burial date is conjecture. In Catholic legend, he is named as the 33rd Pope, an office and a title he would not recognize. The Papacy was a political evolution happening mainly in the 6th century. Sylvester’s name is nonetheless closely linked with the papacy as his invented vita written in the 6th century would be the basis for one of history’s most successful forgeries: The Donation of Constantine.
Parallel to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar of 1582, the New Year was moved to January 1st in Catholic regions. This moved the memorial day of the obscure Saint Sylvester into a position of hitherto unknown prominence on New Year’s Eve. He had to take over several functions of other saints to satisfactorily fill his role and became responsible for good harvests, fertility, and keeping people from harm in the coming year.
His influence on French, German, and Alemannic speaking people became substantial. His name became synonymous with the outgoing old year and the festivities leading up to the New Year. In Alemannic, his name is also used to refer to eternal losers always coming last (for obvious reasons); he also got linked to the saying ‘coming late as old Sylvester’ referring to people bringing old news. The saying stems from the time after the Gregorian calendar reform when Protestant areas were keeping to the Julian calendar in opposition to the popish new calendar; their New Year would in consequence have come ‘late’ compared to Gregorian standard.
In St Silvester, the day starts at five o’clock in the morning with mass being held in the village church of Saint Sylvester. The village is situated 10 km (6 miles) from Fribourg in Switzerland. The village was known as Baselgin in early medieval times. A chapel to Saint Sylvester at the place was first mentioned in 1148. When the importance of the saint’s chapel became greater than that of the village, they changed the poster and named the village after the saint.
In many Catholic areas, it is an old custom to place figurines on the church altar on New Year’s Eve and pray for a good harvest and the safety of the family. The figurines may represent people as well as domestic animals. The ritual is very old, much older than Christianity in fact. St Silvester’s church of Saint Sylvester is one of these places where this form of worship persists.
But St Silvester also holds a high mass for the occasion at five in the morning. This high mass includes the offering of a wheel of cheese and a ham. The high mass and the offering go back to a time of pestilence when an oath was made by the villagers in return for better protection. The mass and the offering are on record for the year 1680 but might be much older. As church, village, and villagers are still here, it would seem that the contract still holds good despite inflation.