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
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,
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
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
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
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.