Happy New Year in France.

299px-Reliquary_of_Pope_Sylvester_I_PEAE_ZadarNew Year in France is often called “La Saint Sylvestre”, as indeed it is in Germany and several other countries.

Saint Sylvester (Silvester/Sylvestre) was a Pope from 314 AD to 335 AD.  He was buried on 31st December 335, and that day became his “feast” day – and it was, coincidentally, New Year’s Eve.  

Very little is known about Sylvestre, though there is a legend that he cured King Constantine of leprosy by tipping holy water over him and, in gratitude, the King gave him Rome as a gift and moved to Constantine.  The story goes on a bit more than that, but it is based on medeival fiction and not fact.

The French also say “le reveillon de St Sylvestre” for New Year’s Eve, un reveillon being a late night as it were – from the verb se reveiller, to wake up.


 8th – century illustration of King Constantine (kneeling) and the pope Sylvetre taking from him a representation (one assumes) of the city of Rome.  Behind the king is a city – Rome – and the king is holding the horse’s bridle.  This was part of the legend – that the king walked, leading the Pope’s horse, in deference to the holy man.  Behind the pope a monk stands brandishing a crucifix; the pope is blessing the king and he has a halo around his head.  Both he and the king, who appears considerably younger, are richly dressed, and the picture is framed with gilded lilies and ivy, a sign of wealth, power and majesty.   A slave (he seems to be wearing an Egyptian-like garb) holds a parasol aloft, to keep the sun off the king, and five men, one holding the crown of Rome, stand and watch from the ramparts.

PopesylvesterdragonIn this picture – sorry, I couldn’t get a better image – Sylvetre is rescuing (and giving life) to people who have been killed by a dragon.  The dragon is on the far left, supposedly killed by Sylvestre, and some parts of the city are in ruins because of the battle.  As each man comes to life he kneels and is blessed by the pope.  This picture also dates from medeival fiction around 800 AD.

 New Year itself was established by Julius Ceasar in 46 BC, and named after Janus (hence January) who was the Roman god of doors and gates. He had two faces – one looking forwards and one looking backwards.

However, as Christianity spread through Europe, ie by the end of the first century, the 25th March was soon considered New Year, as this was Annunciation Day (when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to bear the son of God).  This practice remained in situ till William of Normandy (William the Conqueror), who was crowned King of England on 25th December, decreed that the 25th December was the date of the birth of Jesus and the first of January the date of the baby’s circumcision.  Thus the coronation and the main Christian feast days would be (he thought) forever interlinked.

William-the-Conquerer   Guillaume de Normandie/William the Conqueror, 1028-87.

The new New Year date did not take on very well and most of England copied the rest of Europe and retained the 25th March as New Year, till Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar back to something more like the Roman one – the Gregorian calendar did not allow for leap years.

pope greg  Pope Gregory XIII 1502-85

The French celebrate New Year’s Eve with lots of goodies – traditionally champagne, oysters and foie gras.  When the clock strikes midnight they kiss each other under the mistletoe (I have never witnessed this and Lord knows I have witnessed a great deal of kissing in France!  But I am reliably informed that this is what they do.)  Mistletoe in French is le gui.

New Year’s Day is called Le Jour de l’An and is a bank holiday.  More importantly it is my husband’s birthday – which is why they made it a bank holiday, of course.  The French tend to send New Year cards rather than Christmas cards, and although theoretically they are supposed to arrive before 6th January, they can arrive at any time at all during January and even in to February.  On 6th January, la galette des rois is celebrated – an extremely dry cake is cut up and handed to all guests (if guests there be) and whoever finds la feve (a tiny plastic toy) is king for the rest of the day and wears a paper crown.


Interested in France ?  Go to www.seasidefrance.com to book your holiday not far from La Rochelle/Royan, or telephone Sarah on 07840161831

carte-la-rochelletemp map (temperatures)

Posted on 31/12/2013 by Catherine
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