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A Toast to St Sylvester

Today is New Year’s Eve. Most of us perceive this as a very secular holiday, best celebrated by drinking champagne, going a tad maudlin while singing Auld Lang Syne, and cheering madly as the sky lights up with fireworks just as the clock strikes midnight.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve on December 31st is a relatively modern invention. Okay, okay, maybe that should be re-invention as already the old Romans considered January 1st as the first day in a new year. However, what the Romans thought was mostly forgotten by medieval times, and accordingly New Year tended to vary. In most European countries, March 25th was celebrated as the New Year, usually through religious processions in honour of the Virgin who was visited by the archangel Gabriel on this date & told she was to give birth to God’s son in nine months. Was she thrilled at the thought? Scared stiff? Probably the latter, I suspect. God gave this young woman quite the burden to carry…

Back to New Year: Other than March 25th, there were some countries that felt March 20th was a better option. Or Easter (which was a bit of a challenge, seeing as Easter is a moveable feast). Anglo-Saxon England leaned towards December 25th. In brief, there was little consensus in this matter, but whatever the opinions might have been about the New Year, most Christian countries celebrated December 31st anyway. Why? Because it was the feast of St Sylvester.

I bet most of you haven’t heard of St Sylvester. As a child, I lived in Colombia where very many people referred to New Year’s Eve as “San Silvestre”. There was also a tradition of cracking an egg in a glass of water and analysing the resulting pattern to see what sort of year next year would be. This had nothing to do with Sylvester – I suspect the gent in question would have frowned on such superstitious practises – but it was quite fun, as was the tradition to eat exactly twelve grapes at midnight unless you wanted to end up all unloved in the New Year.

Sylvester Stanze_Vaticane_-_Raffaello_-_Apparizione_della_croce

Constantine & the cross (Raphael’s studio)

So who was this Sylvester, you may ask. Well, the man in question was a pope—and a saint. He became pope first, and sat in St Peter’s chair for a couple of decades in the fourth century. He was a contemporary of Constantine (you know, the Roman Emperor who saw a blazing cross in the sky with the flaming Greek words Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα which translated to Latin meant In Hoc Signo Vinces or In This Sign Thou Shalt Conquer, thereby convincing Constantine it was about time he embraced the Christian faith. Whether this is true or not, I leave up to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself. Let’s just say that an alternative – and more credible – version has it that Constantine didn’t convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed)

At the time, temporal power was very much the top dog. The Roman Emperor may have chosen to convert to Christianity, but as far as he was concerned, he had more clout than the pope. Full stop. Until dear Sylvester, popes tended to be of the same opinion: power belonged to the emperor, conscience and spiritual supremacy to the pope.

If we’re going to be quite honest, we don’t really know much about Sylvester. Yes, we know that he lived through Diocletian’s horrific persecution of the Christians, we know he was elected pope in 314, we know he didn’t participate at the Council of Nicea but approved the various decisions taken there. But no matter who Sylvester really was, it’s the legend surrounding him that permanently shifted the balance of power. You see, some centuries after his death, Sylvester became the poster boy for the all-powerful church. All-powerful as in “if you don’t behave, you’ll have to come crawling to Canossa and beg the Holy Father for forgiveness”. (Curious about Canossa? Look up Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor in the 12th century)

Now we don’t know what sort of relationship Constantine and Sylvester had. Did they chit-chat over a game of chess? Did the pope and the emperor spend quality time together while considering just how to divvy up the power between them? Hmm. I suspect they moved in different circles, one of them constantly defending his empire, the other slowly but safely expanding the influence of the church.


Sylvester & Constantine

Whatever the case, by the early sixth century a legend was spreading whereby Sylvester cured Constantine of leprosy using baptismal waters. Some variants have Constantine asking Sylvester to approve him taking a second wife. Sylvester said “no way” and as Constantine insisted on doing as he pleased, God decide to teach him a lesson, ergo the leprosy. No matter the reason behind his affliction, Constantine was appropriately grateful and to really show the world just how grateful, he acted the pope’s groom, walking beside the mounted pope while leading the papal horse. Constantine went one step further, proclaiming to the world that Sylvester as the pope was primus inter pares among the various leaders of the early Christian church. Probably didn’t go down well with the Patriarch. It is also highly unlikely that Constantine did this—it all smells of propaganda, even more so when one considers it was written centuries after both Sylvester’s and Constantine’s deaths.

The purpose of the above legend, described in the Vita Beati Silvestri—and of the eighth century Donation of Constantine, which promoted itself as being the true story of Constantine’s conversion—was to validate the papal push for supreme power led by a gent named Gelasius, elected pope around 496 AD. Gelasius was of the firm opinion that he, as pope, was king of the heap, while all the various emperors and kings of the time were not. After all, God had appointed the pope (somewhat indirectly, but still) while secular rulers relied on bloodlines or the power of their sword to get them to where they wanted to be.

Undoubtedly, the pope had a lot of power during the medieval period—especially prior to the papacy being moved to Avignon, when effectively the pope became dependent on the French kings, something peeps like Philippe IV of France were glad to use to their own advantage. After all, a pope blessed William the Conqueror’s attack on England. A pope had Fredrik Barbarossa crawling on his hands and knees. A pope called for the crusades. A pope could give and withhold dispensations to wed. It was a pope who divided up the world between Spain and Portugal in the so-called treaty of Tordesillas (the self-same pope that fathered a number of children, kept one of the most beautiful women around as his mistress and in general believed in sucking the marrow out of life as our time on earth is short and God alone knows what happens after death. I think Constantine would have liked this pragmatic and venal pope)


Sylvester, killing a dragon

In the times of Sylvester, popes led a somewhat more retiring existence. But our man of the day is remembered as being the first link in the papal chain that would eventually exert enormous influence—and power—in Medieval Europe.

Personally, I won’t be thinking all that much about Sylvester tonight. I will be thinking of the year that went and the year to come. I will think of the people I love, the people I’ve lost. I will toast in champagne hoping that 2018 will be a better year for our world than 2017 was. And to you, my dear readers, here’s a heartfelt wish that 2018 will be a good year for you, a year where someone will give you a hand when you need it, cheer you on when you surge ahead. But hey, whatever you do, don’t forget to eat those twelve grapes at midnight. After all, a year without love would be a very, very dreary year!

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