Have you ever heard an Israeli refer to their “Sylvester” plans and wonder what they’re talking about? And once you figured out that they were referring to New Year’s Eve, did you wonder why Israelis would name the holiday after the Roman saint who passed notoriously anti-Semitic legislation?
The Roman saint who what? Let’s back up:
Sylvester served as Pope for nearly 25 years, including during the historic Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. He is said to have passed a host of anti-Semitic laws, including convincing Constantine to bar Jews from living in Jerusalem, and prohibiting socializing between Christians and Jews. Sounds pretty bad. But he was canonized as a saint in the 16th century and he, like all Catholic saints, was awarded a day in his honor. His date? December 31st. Centuries later, many European countries refer to New Year’s Eve as Saint Sylvester’s Day.
So that’s all understandable—if distressing—but why do Israelis follow that same convention? It goes like this: Since Jews already have a holiday called New Year’s Eve (Erev Rosh Hashanah, anyone?), it seemed logical for European émigrés’ to continue referring to December 31st by the name they grew up with. And therein lies the very pragmatic explanation for a rather disturbing fact.