Croatia: A Sylvester’s Day Tradition

Pope Sylvester I

Pope Sylvester I

While to many in the world New Year’s Eve, is New Year’s Eve; to Croats it is Sylvester’s Day (“Silvestrovo”) – the feast day of St Sylvester (Pope Sylvester I, 314-335 A.D.); a Thanksgiving day. In fact, in Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and Slovenia, New Years Eve is still referred to as Silvester.

Pope Sylvester I is not as well known as many other Popes but Christians owe a great deal to give thanks to him. His Papacy is of special importance because it was during Sylvester I’s papacy that saw the end of terrible and long-standing persecutions of Christians. And so, Sylvester I was that Pope who, after decades of fear and horror, came to a new and a happy beginning.

A very fitting symbolism for 31st December, when we all wish for a happy New Year.

Croatian traditions around New Year have the component of wishing well to others, just like everywhere else I guess. I have chose one such tradition to write about because it is filled with community spirit and fundamental striving for a good and considerate life, something we should keep an eye on and maintain in one form or another.

Unlike the household tables in cities, towns or palaces, from where the rich New Year’s Eve tables originate, the peasant or folk kitchens in mainland Croatia had not traditionally had very celebratory menus. Lunch in villages was a homemade soup with homemade noodles (rezanci), roasted pork meat from the December pig slaughters, blood sausages (krvavice), potato, and sour cabbage.

Chicken meat was never prepared for New Year’s Eve meal because chicken scratch with their feet backwards, which symbolises the folk belief that if chicken was eaten on that day then the whole coming new year would be bad. Pigs dig the ground with forward motion (as do turkeys, geese and ducks) and so pork was the primary meat on peasants’ tables – it meant that the new year would be “progressive” – everything will go forward, towards a better state.

Every household would receive a visitor early on the New Year’s Day (between 5 and 7 a.m.) and that visitor was a “congratulator” or “well-wisher”. Usually congratulators were men. In most cases it was a family relative, cousin or a neighbour. In olden days men from villages used to plan in advance who will go to which home to wish the household a happy New Year. When the well-wisher completed his “task” he would be invited to sit at the table with the whole family he came to visit and to wish them well.  He would then firstly be offered a drink of good, strong homemade grape or plum-brandy (“rakija”) and then food and wine filled the table for all to enjoy together; a specialty at this table was always a platter of cheese-pie cake or “gibanica”.

Gibanica

Gibanica

A New Year’s Day gift giving tradition in Croatian mainland villages can still be found in places. This special tradition consisted of households distributing a special gift to neighbours and family. The gift was called a “Well” (“zdenec”), something like a “hamper” and it usually contained a slice of a turnip, yellow roots, bread and cheese-pie cake/”gibanica”. With such a humble gift the gift givers wished upon “the Well” to supply the gift recipients with adequate quantities of water throughout the new year.

I wish you all an abundance of peace, joy and love in 2014! Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

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