Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 31: New Year's Eve and the feast of Saint Sylvester

Pope Sylvester I
Sylvester is the first, and major, pope of the Church as it emerged from underground—from the catacombs. Of this important 4th century Bishop of Rome little is known for certain—though legends abound. He was Pope for 21 years, from 314 to 335, during the reign of the Emperor Constantine—the time when the situation of Christians changed fast and dramatically: the Church went from being forbidden and persecuted, to being tolerated; soon afterwards, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Sylvester was apparently an advisor to Constantine. Under Pope Sylvester’s pontificate, many great churches were built (previously there had been no churches since Christianity was illegal); among them are the Lateran basilica and baptistery, the basilica of the Sessorian palace (known as Santa Croce), the original St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and several churches over martyrs’ graves. Also under his pontificate, the first martyrology of Roman martyrs was drawn up, and a Roman school of chant was established. Sylvester convened the great ecumenical Council of Nicaea. Fans of Evelyn Waugh—I am certainly one!—might like to be reminded that in his novel Helena (Waugh’s favorite work), he offers a marvelous image of Sylvester I.

Pope Sylvester I was buried in 335, on December 31—known in Catholic countries as the Feast of Saint Sylvester, Sylvesternacht, and by similar names. He was buried in the church he had built over the Catacomb of Priscilla.

For his feast day, the Viennese eat delicious doughnuts filled with apricot jam (recipe in A Continual Feast, p. 158).

And we drink a delicious punch in his honor. In A Continual Feast (p. 159) I provide the recipe for a great Polish punch—Poncz Sylwestrowy, or Sylvester’s Punch.

Happy feast of Saint Sylvester and happy New Year to you all!

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