Sylvester Abend by Unknown

SYLVESTER-ABEND is one of the prettiest and brightest of German festivals and is almost as much enjoyed as Christmas Eve, but I do not know that any one has described it to American children.

It so happened a few years ago that I was spending the holidays in one of the pleasantest homes in one of the most beautiful towns of South Germany, and there I learned how this festival was kept.

The first of January being in that country St. Sylvester's Day, it is New Year's Eve which is celebrated as Sylvester Eve, or Abend.

"You will come into the drawing-room, after coffee, and see the Christmas-tree plundered," the Doctor's wife had said to me, smiling, at dinner; and all the children had clapped their hands and shouted, "Oh yes! the Christmas-tree plundered, huzza!"

There were more children around the Frau Doctor's table than you could easily count. Indeed, there were more than the long table could accommodate, and three or four had to be seated at the round "Cat's table" in the bow window. There were the two fair-haired little daughters of the house, their tall, twelve-year-old brother, two little Russian boys, three Americans, and another German, who boasts of being the godson of the Crown Prince; all these were studying under the direction of Monsieur P—— the French tutor. Besides, there were half a dozen older boys, who had come from all parts of the globe, England, Cuba, Chili, and where not, to study with the Herr Doctor himself, who is a learned German Professor. And since to-day was holiday—there was little Hugo, pet and baby, standing upon his mother's knee, clapping his hands and shouting with all his might "Me too! plunder Christmas-tree!"

"Why do you call it Sylvester Evening?" I asked the Frau Doctor.

"Because it is Sylvester evening; that is, to-day is dedicated to St. Sylvester, in the Romish Calendar. He was bishop of Rome in the time of the Emperor Constantine, I believe. But there is no connection between the saint's day and the tree-plundering. Still we always do it on Sylvester evening, and so, I think, do most people because it is a convenient time, as every one is sitting up to watch for the birth of the New Year. In some families, however, the tree is kept until Twelfth Night, and in yet others it is plundered the third or fourth day after Christmas."

"Is there any story about St. Sylvester?" asked Nicholas, the bright little Russian, always on the lookout for stories.

"More than one; but I have only time to tell you one which I think the prettiest. You are not to believe it, however.

"When the Emperor Constantine who had been a heathen, was converted to Christianity, some Jewish Rabbis came, to try to make him a Jew. St. Sylvester was teaching the Emperor about Christ, and the Rabbis tried to prove that what he said was false; but they could not. At this, they were angry, and they brought a fierce wild bull, and told Sylvester to whisper his god's name in its ear, and he should see that it would fall down dead. Sylvester whispered, and the beast did fall dead. Then the Rabbis were very triumphant. Even the emperor began to believe that they must be right. But Sylvester told them that he had uttered the name of Satan, not of Christ, in the bull's ear, for Christ gave life, not destroyed it. Then he asked the Rabbis to restore the creature to life, and when they could not, Sylvester whispered the name of Christ, and the bull rose up, alive, and as mild and gentle as it had before been fierce and wild. Then everybody present believed in Christ and Sylvester baptized them all."

The Christmas-tree, which all the week had stood untouched, to be admired and re-admired, was once more lighted up when we went into the drawing-room in the early twilight after four o'clock coffee. All the children were assembled, from the oldest to the youngest, and gazing in silent admiration; little Hugo, with hands clasped in ecstasy, being the foremost of the group. As you probably know, the Christmas presents had not been upon the tree itself, but upon tables around it. It was the decorations of the tree, candy and fruit, and fantastic cakes, very beautiful, which had remained, and which we were now to treat as "plunder."

When Frau Doctor had produced more pairs of scissors than I had supposed could be found at one time in a single house be it ever so orderly and had armed the family therewith, the cutting and snipping began in good earnest. It was a pretty picture: the brilliantly-lighted tree with its countless, sweet, rich decorations, and the eager children intent on their "plundering;" the little ones jumping up to reach the threads from which hung the prizes, and the elder boys climbing upon chairs to get at those which were upon the topmost boughs.

Frau Doctor received all the rifled treasures, as they were rapidly brought to her, heaping them upon a great tray, while Monsieur P. beamed delight through his green spectacles and wide mouth, and Herr Doctor, in the background, amused himself with the droll exclamations, in all sorts of bad German, with which the foreign boys gave utterance to their delight.

When the last ornament was cut off and laid upon the heaped-up tray, and the last candle had burned out, we adjourned to supper.

When that meal was over and the cloth brushed, the tray was brought on, and with it two packs of cards. Now came some exciting moments. All watched as Frau Doctor laid a sweetmeat toy upon each card of one pack, and then dealt the remaining pack around among us. When all were provided, she held up the card nearest her, for us all to see, displaying at the same time, the prize which belonged to it. Then came an eager search in everybody's hand, and great was the delight when little Hugo produced a card exactly like the one which his mamma held up, and received the great gingerbread heart, or "lebkuchen" which happened to belong to that card; for in little Hugo's estimation lebkuchen was the choicest of dainties. Another card and another, with their respective sweetmeats, were quickly turned, the children becoming more eager as one after another received a prize. Again and again the cards were dealt, for the tray of delicious and funny things seemed inexhaustible. The game grew more and more merry as it went on. What cheers greeted the discomfited Monsieur P. as a tiny sugar doll, in bridal array, fell to his lot! what huzzas resounded when Herr Doctor threatened to preserve his long cane of sugar-candy, as a rod to chastise unruly boys withal!

When the last card had been turned, and every place showed a mighty heap of dainties, the tea-kettle was brought on, and Frau Doctor brewed some hot lemonade as a substitute for the "punch" which is thought quite essential at every German merrymaking. In this we drank each other's healths merrily, the boys jumping up to run around the table and clink glasses, and all shouting "lebe hoch!" at the top of their lungs after each name. Then we drank greetings to all who, in whatever land, should think of us this night. This toast was not so noisy as the others had been, and the unusual quiet gave us time to reckon up the many places in which our absent relatives were. From Russia to Australia they were scattered, through nearly every country on the map.

At last, with Frau Doctor's name on our lips, and many clinkings and wavings of glasses, and shouts of "Frau Doctor, lebe ho-o-o-ch!" the party broke up. The little ones went to bed, the older boys and the "grown-ups" into the parlor to "watch for the New Year," a ceremony which may by no means be omitted. What with games and music and eating of nuts and apples the evening was a short and merry one; but when the clock pointed to a quarter before midnight, silence fell upon us.

Suddenly, the peals rang out from all the church towers; cannons were fired and rockets sent up from the market place; we rushed to throw the windows wide open to let the New Year in. Then we turned and shook hands all around and wished "Happy New Year;" then again to the windows. Out of doors all was astir; the bells still pealing, rockets blazing, people in the streets shouting to one another. The opposite houses were all lighted up, and through the open windows we could see all their inmates shaking hands and kissing one another.

But it was too cold to stand long at an open window. The New Year was already nipping fingers and noses as his way of making friendly overtures; merry Sylvester-Abend was gone and so we bade each other and the Old Year good-night.