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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Memories of St. Sylvester's Feast Day

In Switzerland, St. Sylvester's Feast Day was known as Sylvestertag.  One can read about the life of Pope St. Sylvester in other  places; here I shall relate the how the Swiss observed the celebration of Sylvestertag.  In particular, I shall relate how my brothers and I celebrated it while we were living in Switzerland 'way back in 1972.  At that time, we were living in a small village called Dürnten, located in the Canton of Zürich.  Cantons are sort of like states in the U.S., only that Switzerland is closer to the size of some of our states.....

I did find a reference which almost matched what we did.  One thing which I can't reconcile is that I thought that we celebrated Sylvestertag before Christmas rather than after.  Either way, it was quite an interesting activity for an eight year old boy:

Since Silvester Abend, or “Sylvester’s Eve,” is also New Year’s Eve, many Germans and Austrians hold late-night parties. In Germany these festive gatherings may include drinking, eating, dancing, singing, and fortune-telling.

 The only thing I don't recall seeing was fortune-telling.  This party started out in the wee hours of the morning, and ended up at the village school.  We attended the local public school, but there were no problems with having a 'Christian' celebration on the premises.  Read on:

In at least one Swiss town—Urnäsch in Appenzell Canton—bands of 'mummers' known as “Silvesterclausen” still parade through the streets in costumes, bells, and headdresses on December 31, as well as on St. Sylvester’s Day Old Style, which falls on January 13. They visit homes, yodel three times, and are rewarded with wine by the occupants.

That's what I recall, with some modifications.  I remember getting up in the early hours of the morning, maybe around 2 a.m., and joining up with my classmates as we went through the village making noise.  We did more than yodel; people were banging on drums and using cowbells to wake up the occupants of the village.  When I say cowbells I am referring to the huge Swiss cowbells, rather than the puny cowbell used in the infamous 'more cowbell' skit.  Here is a selection of Swiss cowbells; we were using the larger ones:

Another difference is the whole issue of wine.  Most of the children already had wine to drink as they made their way toward the school; most of them were also smoking.  This was the most bizarre part of the festivities, even if all my classmates were two years older than me.  Our parents forbade us to smoke or drink while we were out that morning.  They wanted us to try smoking and drinking alcohol under controlled conditions where they could be present.  More on that later.

Even better than wine were the little treats and cakes which we got from the homes.  I don't recall what they looked like, but this is the best image I could find when I googled images of Sylvestertag.  It looks like a half-eaten donut:

Around daybreak, we arrived at the school, where my classmates performed skits and played music for our entertainment.  It is the only time that I really enjoyed accordion music.

Several days later, at home, our parents let us try smoking cigarettes.  They gave us four boys a pack of cigarettes and let us try them.  I didn't like it, probably because I was inhaling.  Ever since then, I have had an aversion to smoking.  I have only smoked a few cigars since then; the most memorable one was a Cuban cigar which I tried while on temporary duty in El Salvador back in 1998.

Then a few days after trying smoking, our parents allowed us to try drinking alcohol.  Vermouth.  We diluted it with ginger ale, or some kind of lemon-lime soda, but I still recall it as being nasty.  

Sylvestertag was one of many adventures we had while living in Switzerland.  While it was one of the more bizarre things we saw while living there, it still was great to see how other cultures live and celebrate.

Me, Francis, Fr. Denis, and Matthew.  Patrick was to arrive five years after this picture was taken.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I see now that Max looks just like you!

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