New Year’s Eve Dinner n France: Le Réveillon de St-Sylvestre
The New Year’s Eve celebration, referred to as Saint Sylvestre in France, is of pagan origin. The celebration existed long before St. Sylvester himself and long before there was even a pope. Ancient beliefs and celebrations, both religious and pagan, are mixed with those of winter solstice.
In Ancient Rome, the New Year was celebrated after Saturnalia, which was around December 25th, and was a time for “feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees.” People exchanged coins and medallions in celebration of the New Year. This tradition has slipped into oblivion, although adults sometimes still give children coins on this day, but other parts of Saturnalia continue today.
Up until the time of Julius Caesar, this end-of-year celebration didn’t have to fall on a fixed date; it was simply about ten days after Saturnalia. It was Caesar who set the date of December 31, and later, in France, Charles IX set the first day of the year as January 1.
St. Sylvester was Pope from 314 to 335, at the time the Church was emerging from the catacombs. Although Emperor Constantine controlled most of what went on in the Empire, Sylvester persuaded him to convert to Christianity and close the pagan temples. The great basilicas were also built under his influence.
But St. Sylvester, born Sant’Angelo a Scala and known as Pope Silvester, was forced to submit to the emperor’s wishes during most of his reign.
It was after his death that legends started to build around his name, one of the more interesting ones being that he slayed a dragon, so he is often depicted with the dying dragon. I wasn’t aware there were “still” dragons running around in the fourth century in Italy, so it’s odd to see paintings of a man dressed as Pope slaying a dragon. Another legend is that Sylvester cured Constantine of leprosy by sprinkling holy water on him.
Little of this can be verified historically, but in the eyes of the Catholic Church, he was a strong, wise man who somehow managed to maintain an independent Church even under a dominating emperor such as Constantine. It is for his humility and courage that he is celebrated, and historical accounts tell us that he died on December 31 of 335, thus explaining that New Year’s Eve is his saint’s day.
That it falls on the same day as the end of Saturnalia, and still includes the ancient celebrations of feasting, dancing, and other winter solstice rites is perhaps a coincidence…
In any case, there is little talk of poor St. Sylvester, his dragon and his miracles as French people sit down to their lavish New Year’s dinners these days. Unlike most church-related holidays, the menu is not so strictly defined, but almost invariably involves oysters. One often sees salmon, both fresh and smoked; foie gras; seafood platters. In more traditional settings, you’ll see terrines and pâtés. And the traditional bûche de Noël, or yule log, often makes its last appearance of the year.
If you are planning to celebrate the end of Saturnalia or St. Sylvester or simply the New Year according to the Gregorian calendar, here are a few of my classic recipes that work well for large New Year’s Eve gatherings:
Anchoïade (starter or with apéritif)
Pouteille Pig’s Trotter and Beef Stew
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.