If you’ve ever been in Israel on (or around) New Year’s, you’ve probably wondered why it is that so many people in Israel refer to New Year’s Eve as “Silvester.” After all, a simple search on the internet reveals that Silvester is actually Pope Silvester I, who presided over the Catholic Church from 314 to 335 CE. He was the Pontiff during the rule of Constantine and the First Nicaean Council. December 31 was the date of his death and, therefore, it became a holy day on the Church calendar. So, why in the world would the only Jewish country in the world refer to New Year’s Eve as Silvester?!
Well, it’s complicated.
The first – and easiest – explanation is that the Hebrew phrase for “New Year” is already taken by another holiday. “Rosh Hashanah – ראש השנה” refers to a very different holiday. It would be both confusing and disrespectful to refer to the secular New Year – which was originally the Christian New Year – by the same name as the Jewish New Year. So, Hebrew speakers in the land of Israel needed a different name for December 31st.
This leads to the second explanation for this strange custom. Going back about 100 years, the people who were most likely to want to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the Holy Land were those who had moved to Israel (Palestine) from another part of the world where they celebrated the holiday. Those who came to Israel from European countries already knew about the Festival of Silvester because it was day of celebration in countries such as Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy and Poland (among others). They remembered the festive celebrations in their former countries and wanted to recreate them in their new home.
A third possible explanation – which I remember hearing from my tour guide many, many years ago in Israel – is that Christian residents of Jerusalem introduced the custom and their Jewish neighbors were happy to join in a celebration that seemed mostly non-religious.
Perhaps, the biggest boost to the popularity of Silvester in Israel came, however, with the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990’s. Apparently, since Christmas was banned by the Soviet government, all Soviets – regardless of religious origin – celebrated Silvester instead.
So, if you happen to find yourself in Israel on December 31st, don’t forget to wish people a “Happy Silvester – סילווסטר שמח.”
Best wishes for a Happy New Year!