S is 54, he lived in England where his mother is from for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to California. He is soft spoken and pauses thoughtfully while speaking. He told me about this Easter tradition of a cake his mother used to bake.
“And then this is something my mom did… I’ve never heard it done anywhere else… for Easter she would bake a cake and make eleven marzipan eggs and put them on top of it… and it represented each of the disciples… except for Judas (laughs). I think it was a white cake… or I think a plain yellow… we always went outside and took an Easter picture with one of us five kids holding the cake.”
When I researched this, I found that this is a traditional cake known as a Simnel Cake. This tradition goes back to medieval times and started out as something more like bread than cake. Simnel comes from the Latin Simila – a fine white flour. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was something more like pudding. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it became recognizable as cake and the marzipan eggs don’t appear until the 20th century. It is described as a fruit cake, but lighter than the traditional Christmas version. S didn’t mention fruit in the one his mom used to make, but the white cake would have been in line with the original use of fine white flour. For more information and a recipe please see https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/03/19/simnel-cake/
Informant: “So for Sylvester, in every major city, and pretty much all of Germany, you are allowed to shoot fireworks at the turn of midnight. And this day is a holiday, but some shops are open like, until 6:00pm. And then people will go to their houses, or friend’s houses, or even parties. But usually first, the evening starts with a dinner. Like, not just with your close family, but it is with your friends too.”
Interviewer: “And why do they call New Years ‘Sylvester’?”
Informant: “I have no idea, I mean I never thought of it as ‘New Years’. It is just the name we gave it. I think it is some religious guy… Oh! And on Sylvester everyone always watches Dinner for One. It is one of these things where you have a certain tradition, and you don’t really know where it comes from but you grow up with. And Dinner for One is a common thing for Sylvester because the butler in the show keeps saying ‘same procedure as every year?’ So he is referring to the routine, and that some things don’t change even though the year changes. I don’t know, it’s just one of these traditions that you don’t know where they come from, but you grew up with them so you don’t really question them. So yeah.”
Much like in America, Germany celebrates New Years by partaking in special events such as the shooting of fireworks at midnight and spending time with friends and family. On New Years it is important to spend time with friends and family because it is a way of expressing to them that you appreciate and love them, and you want them to be in your life at the start of the new year. This indicates that you are wishing your relationship with them to extend into the new year, and many years afterwards. The shooting off of fireworks is a sign of celebration, much like it is in America. However a difference I noticed when I celebrated New Years with my informant was that in Germany people are allowed to fire the big fireworks, but where I am from in America only city workers are allowed to shoot off the big fireworks because it is considered too dangerous for other people to do. Even though firework regulations change based on where you are in America, the fact that there are not as many regulations on fireworks in Germany indicates that the German government probably trusts it’s people with the explosives more than the American government does with their people.
In Germany, ‘New Years’ is referred to as Sylvester. My informant was not sure as to why this is, which indicates that the tradition of calling ‘New Years’ ‘Sylvester’ comes from old, long forgotten beliefs. In my research I discovered that the term ‘Sylvester’ is of Isreali origin because that is what the Isreali people call the New Years celebration. Sylvester was the name of the ‘saint’ and Roman Pope who was in charge of the Catholic church during the 4th century. Pope Sylvester is best known for convincing Constantine to forbid Jews from living in Jerusalem. All Catholic ‘Saints’ are awarded the day Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory, and December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day. Due to the anti-Semitic tone of this legend, perhaps one of the reasons why my informant was not aware of the true origin of Saint Sylvester Day was because Germany has been very careful to distance themselves from their negative history in WWII and the Holocaust.
The final Sylvester tradition my informant mentioned was watching Dinner for One every year. This english film is played every hour on television during Sylvester and it is very popular in Germany because as my informant pointed out, it reflects on the idea that even though things are changing there are some things in life that will always remain. Some people feel anxiety towards change, therefore I can understand how in this idea that there is “the same procedure every year” is reassuring to those fearful of change. The film is especially popular among the wealthier German class because there are jokes in the film that only the wealthy would understand, such as the knowledge of serving the right kind of alcoholic drink with the food. This comes from upper class dining beliefs that for example, port is an after dinner drink therefore it should be served with the final dish, fruit. The film is also in English, which is a language that only educated German people would understand.
My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany. She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree. She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.
The source’s father is a second generation Norwegian. Her grandfather immigrated from Norway to Chicago. While marzipan isn’t a specifically Norwegian desert, its found at every family gathering.
What makes the family marzipan unique, is that they always make it in the shape of a potato. This tradition was started by the source’s grandmother, who felt that potatoes were good luck, and wanted to serve marzipan potatoes to the family member so everyone would drive home safely. Her grandmother has since passed on, but the family tradition is now carried on by her Aunt Camille.
I believe that the tradition of making their favorite marzipan desert in the shape of potatoes reflects the family’s new home in Chicago, which has always had a very large Irish population.