According to the Bible, spring marks the beginning of the year. “This month [Aviv, the month of Passover] shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Ex. 12:2).
In ancient times, not only the Israelites but also the Gentiles regarded spring as the beginning of the year. For Jews the first day of the year was Aviv 1. Gentiles used April 1 as New Year’s Day. Then in 46 B.C., Julius Caesar revised the calendar and decreed that henceforth, the new year would begin on January 1. Those who continued to regard April 1 as New Year’s Day were considered fools. This is the popular explanation for the origin of April Fool’s Day, though there is no actual historical proof of this.
Pope Sylvester, who was Pope from 314 to 335, died on December 31. To honor him, several European countries started calling (and still call) the January 1 New Year “Sylvester.” For some reason, Christians believed that Sylvester was swallowed by Leviathan, who would return in the year 1000 and bring destruction. It didn’t happen, so the people celebrated and reveled when the January New Year arrived.
Another New Year’s custom was to persecute Jews. “January 1 in antiquity was always a good time to kill Jews,” Herb Keinon writes. Caesar slaughtered Jews in Galilee on January 1, and eyewitnesses said that “blood flowed in the streets.” On January 1, 1581, Pope Gregory confiscated all sacred literature from the Jews in Rome, and thousands of Jews were murdered.
A rabbi on the aish.com web site points out that “there is nothing remotely Jewish about ‘Sylvester Day.’”
That’s certainly true. Nonetheless, many secular Israeli Jews want to celebrate the January 1 New Year like the other nations do, with partying and drinking and debauchery. But they can’t call it “New Year’s Day,” because Rosh HaShanah is already used for the fall holiday of Trumpets. So what do they call it in Israel? Yom Silvester, the Day of Sylvester, an anti-Semitic Pope.
I suppose Sylvester would be pleased, but I don’t think God is thrilled to see Jews in Israel celebrating Sylvester Day.
SOURCES: Herb Keinon, “Calendar Concerns,” Int’l Jerusalem Post, Jan. 2-8, 2009. Online: aish.com; infoplease.com; Wikipedia.
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Image (Top): Author's rendering of Sylvester the Cat for this purpose of this article. Visit Daniel Botkin's art galleries on DanielBotkin.com.