The Gregorian New Year’s Eve in Israel

A few days ago was the new year’s eve, by the Gregorian calendar. These days the Gregorian calendar is very common, so I expect it merited some new year’s eve celebrations even in places that officially go by other calendars.

Like here in Israel, where there’s the Jewish calendar. Officially, anyway. The Gregorian calendar isn’t official, but it is the de-facto calendar used almost anywhere. Large parts of the public sector (Meaning anything government related) use the Jewish calendar on official documents, but even those usually come with the Gregorian dates.

Because hardly any person uses the Hebrew calendar, or care about it, for any reason beyond knowing when the holidays are, or for religious purposes. It may not be very politic to say so, but that’s the case. Almost anything and everything goes by the Gregorian calendar.

One of the dates which people do notice in the Hebrew calendar is our very own new year’s, “Rosh HaShana”, for the start of the Hebrew calendar. So people feel very uncomfortable calling December 31st the new year’s eve. It’s the new civic year’s eve, or something like that. The new tax year’s eve, if you’re an accountant with a sense of humour.

Many people don’t bother celebrating. Many more do celebrate, but like to pretend they don’t. It’s not really celebration, just a special meal, or meeting with a few friends for a party and drinks. Not a celebration at all. Honest.

It can be quite amusing.

What is stranger is another term for the evening. Sylvester. Which has a very curious position here.

Globally it’s not a very common name for new year’s eve these days. It is named after pope Silvester I, who died on December 31st.

But that term is currently popular, as far as I know, in only two places. Germany is one. And Israel is the other.

And what makes it so strange that his name is used to refer to the new year’s eve in Israel? Beside the (not insignificant) fact that Christianity isn’t a big religion here, it’s the fact that pope Silvester was a very big anti-semite who was responsible for a large amount of prosecutions of Jews.

Not the kind of person who usually get happy events celebrated in his name. Not in a country mainly full of Jews, anyway

So the name always strikes me as peculiar. If it was the common term world-wide, that would be obvious. But it’s not. Ask most Americans, or most non-German Europeans, about Sylvester, and they won’t have a clue what is it that you refer to.

That’s not hyperbole. I tried. I also know Israeli people who wished friends abroad a happy Sylvester, only to be met with a question of what is it exactly.

And the name is so prevalent here that it always surprises people. That is what people here know as the term, the only official term, for the Gregorian new year’s eve. So when you wish a foreigner to have a happy foreign holiday, by the name of that foreign holiday, you expect to be understood. And you rarely are.

It also causes problems, of course. Because enough people here actually know who pope Silvester was, and so refuse to celebrate Sylvester. An understandable enough position.

Which can be seen expressed in different ways. Some just refuse to treat the new year’s eve as if something happened. These are the same ones who actually don’t celebrate it at all, not even with a token nod, or a happy new year’s wishes. Others just make doubly sure that they always use the full title of “new civic year” whenever they mention it, emphasising the civic, as if it makes the distinction itself rather than mentioning the new year instead of the name of Silvester.

The large waves of immigration from former USSR countries also drastically increased the scope of the celebrations of new year’s eve. Here it was given token celebrations, while there it was celebrated full-scale. And since the celebrations are, in a large sense, civic and not religious, people keep celebrating it here with the same enthusiasm.

Though there is one problem with this that I never managed to get a good explanation of. The main calendar in most USSR countries when these people emigrated was the Julian one. But here they celebrate on the Gregorian one. Doesn’t it feel like they’re holding the celebration a few days too early? Sure, the Gregorian calendar is the one used here. But by this logic the Jewish calendar is the one used here, so why not celebrate new year’s eve together with Rosh HaShana? It seems inconsistent.

Then again, celebrations and holidays don’t have to be consistent, do they?

Another important aspect of the new year’s eve celebrations, as in many other places in the world, involves drinking a lot of alcohol. That is true for a very large percentage of all those who celebrate. Any excuse for a party. Which makes January 1st one of the non-holiday (officially acknowledged holiday, anyway) days with the highest work absence level in the year.

Quite a lot of people take a vacation, because it’s either that or get to work late with a killer hangover. My office was half deserted when I came to work, and that was the general case throughout the country.

Also, this year a lot more people celebrated new year’s eve than in the previous years. It’s a bold statement, I know. But I base it on facts. Well, on deductions from fact. Mainly, on the fact that the cellular telephony networks were unable to cope with the amount of “Happy new year” SMS messages that were sent close to midnight. Almost anyone I spoke to, and who tried to send such messages, reported getting back a notice that the messages were not sent, and had to retry.

Make me wonder how the systems will cope with wide scale messaging in cases of emergency. Not so well, I believe. Oh, well, here’s a wish for the new year then: May there be no large scale emergencies.

There, that should cover that.

Oh, right, new year’s resolutions. A widespread tradition, where people make bold statements on what they want to do differently, and better, next year. And which people rarely follow through, and usually sheepishly renege on but promise to do better next year. Hmm… OK, new year’s resolution: Not to make any new year’s resolutions I will fail to follow through on. Heh, I think I finally succeeded. Cool.

2 Responses to “The Gregorian New Year’s Eve in Israel”

  1. Somebody Somefield says:

    I can clarify some things for you … In USSR the main calendar is/was *not* Julian but Gregorian. Gregorian is the calendar used by the government and people. Julian is the calendar still used by the Russian Orthodox Christian church. It is used to calculate Orthodox Christian holidays, but most people then convert the dates to Gregorian (e.g. Christmas is Dec 25th Julian, but it falls on Jan 7th Gregorian, so most people just go by Jan 7th Gregorian). That explains why your Russian immigrants celebrate Gregorian and not Julian New Year’s Eve.

    Otherwise, I got amused by your Sylvester story… I am not a Jew and I know nothing about that pope (as you say), but I guess you could openly celebrate it … as the first full day without him…

  2. Post author comments:

    Thanks for the information. It does clarify things.

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