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.