german customs and traditions

Birthday in Germany – Tradition upon Tradition

Birthday in Germany - Tradition upon Tradition
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In many countries, birthdays are an occasion to celebrate that the person involved has survived another year. Germany is no different in this respect, but the traditions there are a bit different than what people in the UK or in the United States might be familiar with!

First: never wish someone happy birthday before the actual date!

From what we can tell, this ties into a superstition that the person might die before they reach their special day. On the bright side, this is where the German love of punctuality shines; calendars are meticulously kept of who has birthdays and when. Or you could rely on automated calendars like your phone or Facebook to do it for you, now. Just never, ever wish people a happy birthday before the day. Don’t say it, don’t give them presents, nothing that might be construed of as wishing them a happy birthday before the actual date. By extension, this means that a birthday-party cannot happen before the day itself, either. (Speaking of happy birthday: you say “Alles Gut zum Geburtstag!” when you DO want to wish someone a happy birthday, in German.)

Second: if you get invited out to someone’s birthday-party, you are THEIR guest.

This means two things. One: adults in Germany organize their own (if any) birthday-party shenanigans. Two: if you’re the one being invited out, you don’t pay for anything. The host is supposed to treat their guests. This is against some expectations in the US – in the US, getting together for a birthday-party or dinner is often organized by friends of the person having their birthday. However, this only seems to apply to adults: if you’re a child in Germany, expect to be treated very well on your special day up till about age 12.

Third: speaking of children…

Some families will put candles on a “birthday-wreath” made out of wood (Geburtstagkranz) – these wreaths have about ten or twelve holes in them, meant to represent each year as a child. However, the custom of putting candles on a cake happens in Germany, too! Just don’t be surprised if you see these wooden wreaths used instead.

Fourth: Old traditions die hard!

There are some birthday-traditions related to “helping” the person find a match; for example, in northern German areas, there is a custom of having unmarried men sweep a public place or hall on their thirtieth birthday. Unmarried women have to clean doorknobs (often with a toothbrush). This has roots in announcing that there is an unmarried person in the community that can clean, as sort of a desperate attempt to find them a match. Strengthening this tie is that the only way to be “freed” from these chores is to get a kiss from the opposite sex. (The 25th birthday custom of the “sock wreaths” and “carton wreaths” for men and women, respectively, also seem to say to the entire town: here’s an old man at 25, or a spinster at 25.) What will happen to these traditions now that people are generally marrying later and later, who knows.

Birthday in Germany - Tradition upon Tradition

How to prepare for Studienkolleg in Germany

How to prepare for Studienkolleg in Germany
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So your qualifications are not considered enough for studying at a university in Germany? Time to check out the Studienkolleg – a preparatory course especially meant for international students to be able to study in Germany.
There are two main types of Studienkolleg; basically, ones attached to a university, and ones attached to a “university of applied sciences” – what people from the United States might call a technical or vocational college. If you go to a Studienkolleg from a university, and pass the qualifications and exams from it, you can study at any university or vocational college in Germany.


If you study at a Studienkolleg at a vocational college, you can only apply to study at vocational colleges in Germany. So please check with the associated universities to make sure that when you study at their Studienkolleg, that the qualification is accepted at the university at which you want to study!

Also, make sure of the requirements for tuition fees, if any. State-run Studienkolleg-facilities do not charge tuition fees and their qualifications are valid within the whole of Germany. Private Studienkolleg facilities do exist, and they do charge tuition fees, but make sure you get as much information from these facilities as possible as to their qualifications, their validity, and if the qualifications will be accepted by where you eventually wish to study!

Within the Studienkolleg, there may be specialized tracks depending on the subjects you wish to go on to study. Of course, this will also include German language classes as well to help prepare you, but the subjects you wish to study will be also reflected in the program of study.

These tracks are usually broken down as follows, with the target degrees in mind:

  • medical, biological, and pharmaceutical degrees
  • mathematical, science, or technical degrees (STEM type fields)
  • business, economics, and social science degrees
  • the humanities (including German studies)
  • language degrees

So please make sure to check and double-check the information you have! Contact the Studienkolleg that you are interested in directly if you must, to get information directly from them. Because they are familiar with working with international students, they will be able to help you get the most up-to-date information about their programs of study and what a student can expect.

How to prepare for Studienkolleg in Germany
german customs and traditions

Tag der Deutschen Einheit – Day of German Unity

Tag der Deutschen Einheit - Day of German Unity
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Historically, the lands we know today as the nation of Germany were in reality governed by an loose conglomeration of princes and nobles, each with their own lands (even in the days of the Holy Roman Empire). With the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in the early 19th century, and the rise of nationalism in the 19th century especially during the Napoleonic era, unity was first achieved by Wilhelm I of Prussia when German princes gathered in Versailles to recognize him as German Emperor on January 18th, 1871.

Days of German unity in the East and West

Since then there have been several days considered a “day of German unity”, for various reasons: in the postwar Federal Republic of Germany, June 17th was celebrated as a day for German unity. This day was actually to remember the uprising of 1953 in East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, as it was called). In East Germany itself, the Founding Day on October 7th was celebrated as a national holiday.

The Origin of October 3rd

While English speakers may mistake the current Day of German Unity to celebrate the reunification of Germany, “reunification” is not a term used within Germany at all. The dream of unity has existed for decades, if not into centuries, and the current Day of German Unity (October 3rd) was partly chosen to reflect a day not already observed in some way by either Germany as to avoid connotations of reunification and the harsh economic and political divisions that had existed. This debate and avoidance of reunification and division comes into play even today: there was a short-lived debate to move the Day of German Unity from its set date on October 3rd to the Sunday closest to it, but was rejected in part because the proposal would have placed the holiday to occasionally fall on October 7th, which had been the Founding Day in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). It is not about reunification of what was formerly East Germany and West Germany, but about celebrating the dream of a singular unity that had existed and continues to exist.

An alternate date was considered for the current Day of German Unity, that being November 9th (the day the Berlin Wall came down), but was rejected in part because November 9th was also the anniversary of large-scale progroms against Germany’s Jewish population (notably, the Kristallnacht) and thus deemed inappropriate for a national holiday.

Tag der Deutschen Einheit - Day of German Unity

The most common Religions in Germany

The most common Religions in Germany - religion in Germany
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Since the early medieval period and the formation of what became the Holy Roman Empire, Christianity has been strong in the lands we now know as Germany. However, even with trade, politics, and other considerations shaping its history, religion in Germany is still an interesting subject.

Religion in the Constitution

The Basic Law solidifies the right to freedom of religion in modern Germany. This takes two aspects: both the negative freedom of religion (the right to not have to confess your faith, or any lack thereof, unless legally required to do so; also, the freedom not to be exposed to religion while in a state of subordination, for example) and positive freedom of religion. There is also no state church in Germany, though there is a thing called a church tax. More on this in the next section.

The two major Churches

Due to historical and cultural reasons, the largest religious organizations in modern Germany are the Protestant Evangelical Church in Germany and the Roman Catholic Church (both Christian movements). These churches are organized into legal corporations under public law, and enjoy certain benefits such as being able to provide religious education in state schools – for example, one denomination gives a lesson for members registered under their own denomination (Catholics would go to the Catholic-organized class, and so on). For smaller denominations or religious minorities, they may cooperate with these denominations or conduct classes outside school. Those who do not wish to participate in religious education at all must attend an alternative class called “ethics”. So the practice is a bit different from other countries, in this regard.

The Church Tax…

The church tax comes from a longstanding practice of a ruler maintaining churches, graveyards, and so on throughout history. Because of this, while Germany has no formal state religion, it devolved the church tax onto religious organizations – the tax goes towards upkeep of religious buildings, gravesites/cemeteries, salaries for clergy, and so on. Only people registered under the denominations (which are registered as legal corporations under public law) have to pay church tax, with the idea that Catholics would then help to pay for the maintenance of their own (Catholic) churches, and so on. The Jewish faith is also considered a taxable faith, depending on the German state, due to the large population of Jewish people there (third-largest Jewish population in Europe). However, this also means that smaller denominations or those without a strong organizational system (such as Muslims) may not be included in this system of taxation and maintenance, as the system favors large well-structured religious organizations.

…and how to avoid it.

If someone does not wish to pay church tax, they can make an official declaration that they are “leaving the church” – in this case, leaving the religious organization. It may be that the number of people in Germany who do not self-identify as religious may be partly due to this church tax, as more people over time have filed to not be considered members. (You can see what it would cost, and how to file, at this website (German langua only). However,  Catholic and Protestant clergy may refuse to bury someone who has formally left the faith, even if the person in question is still a believer. Currently, the issues revolving around church tax – who can administer it, who can distribute it, who has to pay it and why – are hot issues when it comes to matters of religion and the state in Germany. But as more people within Germany no longer identify with religious organizations, the religious organizations and churches in question are facing dilemmas about how to maintain themselves and how to change.

Islam and Juadism

Islam is notably the largest non-Christian religion in the country. Historically this was because of trade relations with the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century; nowadays, because of the postwar period and the inviting of foreign workers into Germany (notably from Turkey), German Muslims are not too uncommon, but find themselves in the midst of a tide of political debates in Germany, in Europe, and worldwide.

Many Jewish people also returned to Germany, notably after German unity, due to seeing German cities such as Berlin as more welcoming post-war than cities in ex-Soviet bloc countries.

The most common Religions in Germany - religion in Germany.
german history

Why do some Israelis have German-sounding names?

Why do some Israelis have German-sounding names?
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The brief answer to this would be “because Ashkenazim” – Jewish people who settled in the lands of Germany, Austria, even Poland who kept the predominately Eastern European rites and traditions of Jewish practice.

In history, Jewish people settled into the Holy Roman Empire and were even invited to England by William the Conqueror, partly as a way to jump-start education and boost the local economies. They were physicians, translators, administrators, merchants, lenders, and more, even with religious and secular restrictions imposed on their communities. Over time, the Jewish communities that had been based primarily in continental and eastern European lands became known as the Ashkenazim, and they primarily used the Yiddish language (a language which developed from Hebrew, German, as well as languages like Russian and Polish) as a method of communication. They developed their own rites, traditions, literature, and customs. When naming laws were implemented throughout Europe, many Ashkenazim took on surnames that reflected the language of their location – most often, the German-speaking areas they were already based in. By the time of World War II, estimates place Ashkenazim at about 92% of the Jewish world population (and consequently as the vast majority of Jews in Europe) with Yiddish speakers worldwide at approximately 11 to 13 million, with Poland and Germany as major cultural centers.

With the advent of the Holocaust, many Ashkenazim (along with Jews practicing other rites such as Mizrahi and Sephardim), as well as ethnicities, other religions, and other people deemed a danger to the Nazi regime, perished. Jewish people sought refuge in other countries, such as the United States. With the end of World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel, and consequently the establishment of Israel’s Law of Return in 1950, the newly established Israel saw a flood of Ashkenazim.

Further Reading: Non-Jewish Victims of Persecution in Germany (Yad Vashem)

Why do some Israelis have German-sounding names?
german customs and traditions

The Beginning of May – May 1st in Germany

The Beginning of May - May 1st in Germany
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A Holiday for Workers as well as Welcoming Spring!

The beginning of May has long been celebrated across Europe as the start of summer, with festivities ranging from the street carnival-like atmosphere of Finland to Morris dancing in areas of England. In Germany, May 1st  has been a public holiday since the days of the Weimar Republic.

May Day – another name for May 1st – intertwines two movements. As mentioned, it is traditionally the start of summer in European countries, and so flowers are in bloom, songs are sung, there may be a May Queen contest in some areas, and so on. It’s common for families to enjoy the fresh air outside on this day, and so there may be a lot of picnics or general festivities outside on this day. In Germany the festivities may start on the night before (April 30 – May 1st), which is the night known as Walpurgisnacht – sometimes fires are lit to await the arrival of warmer weather on Walpurgisnacht, and in some of the rural areas, pranks may be played. Different towns might have slightly different traditions for May Day festivities, so please make sure to ask what your town does!

The political Meaning of May 1st

But the second movement is that of workers’ rights and political agitation. May 1st was declared a day to celebrate labor and work by members of various socialist and workers’ parties at the Second International, and so it has been associated with political agitation and celebrating the working classes in some form since approximately 1889. Before the German unity, both East Germany and West Germany held May Day celebrations, but the flavor of them varied; in East Germany, workers were pressured to participate in state-organized rallies and parades. In West Germany there was agitation and demonstrations by the workers’ movements and other movements (such as anarchists and so on) –  notably in 1987, there was major unrest in the area of Kreuzberg and violent riots occurred.

Because of that area’s experience with riots and unrest around May 1st due to anarchist movements and political tensions, alternative festivals and observances in Berlin have been supported as a way to not only hold the traditions of May Day observances, but also as a way to decrease tensions and promote peace. Police also have a policy of de-escalation in place, to help protect lives of the citizens.

So go out for May Day and enjoy the festivities or rallies, but make sure to take care as well!

The Beginning of May - May 1st in Germany
Studying in Germany

The Master’s Degree – Studying in Germany

The Master's Degree in Germany
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If you plan to study in Germany at the level of the Master’s degree, in some ways it’s easier than trying to apply as an undergraduate at the Bachelor’s level: If you are an English speaker, you’re in luck! There are more programs at the Master’s level that are taught in English, with more and more expected soon.


General Requirements for your Master’s degree

To clarify here: The Master’s degree is the second university degree, and is done either after the Bachelor’s degree is awarded or after a few years of professional experience. At the Master’s level, classes are generally more intensive and specialized, so it is useful to study at the Master’s level if you wish to specialize in a particular field, or if you want to bolster your previous studies with a related field. Some programs of study at the Master’s level do not require the study of a related field first, such as the Master of Business Administration degree (MBA), so it is best to carefully review your options well in advance.


Which Documents do you need?

However, you will still need your documents. This includes transcripts and translations of credentials for your Bachelor’s degree. If you are applying to the Master’s level courses without having yet graduated from your Bachelor’s degree – such as applying in your final year of Bachelor’s degree classes to study in Germany for a Master’s degree the year afterwards – please make sure to indicate this in your documents and send all unofficial or interim transcripts you may have, noting that your degree is still in progress and has not yet been awarded. Also make sure to include your expected graduation date with your materials. When in doubt, or if you have any questions about the courses you are looking at taking, please contact the universities you are looking at directly: it is always best practice to contact their Akademisches Auslandsamt / International Office first, but at the Master’s degree level, it is also a good idea to contact the departments that interest you for more information on the program of study you might be interested in. For example, if you are interested in enrolling in a program related to history, you may want to contact that university’s history department for more information about the program.

Funding, however, can become more of a problem at the Master’s degree level depending on your country of origin. The DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) can help international students in finding scholarships, stipends, and other resources in financing your Master’s degree in Germany.

study germany Master's Degree

Bachelor Degree in Germany

Bachelor Degree Germany
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So you’ve looked at our previous articles on studying in Germany, and you want to do your Bachelor’s degree at a German institution. But how?

We have already covered some of the documents you’ll need, such as getting your passport in order as well as making sure your educational documents are translated and verified. But aside from that, the Bachelor in Germany degree depends on the university – and if you plan to study in English or in German.
But here are three general tips that may make things a bit easier!

1. Get applications/documents in on time.

Like with universities in your home country, looking at deadlines is one of the most important things you have to do. Please check with the universities you are interested in to find out their application deadlines. For example, Freie Universität Berlin lists their major deadlines for upcoming semesters on this page.

2. Check the language skill requirements for your Bachelor program of study.

Generally, proof of German language proficiency is required, except for certain programs of study taught in English. It is useful to check the student admissions or student center of the university you are interested in applying, to get the most up to date information on what is required. If your native language is neither German nor English, make extremely sure you have language proficiencies documented and recorded! For example, five years of English instruction at school may be enough for some programs, OR a certain score on the IELTS or the TOEFL tests. Please make sure to check!

3. Please make sure you have enough funding to make it through your Bachelor degree.

This is required in order to apply for an entry visa or a residence permit for studying within Germany. For a Bachelor degree in Germany, normally a tuition fee is not charged. However, living expenses still incur for you, and so it is recommended you have approximately 600 – 800 Euros (or equivalent) per MONTH at your disposal to take care of these expenses such as housing, groceries, clothes, and more while you are in Germany. This amount must be independent of any job you take. We will discuss funding in more detail in the next article.

Hope this helps you!

Bachelor Degree Germany

What to do when your passport gets stolen?

What to Do if Your Passport Gets Lost or Stolen
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To add to the already stressful situation of losing your passport, you may not know what to do when you lose it in another country. Admittedly, there is some variance based on what your country of origin is, and where you may have lost your documents (or had it stolen), but these are some tips you can follow.

In any case, it is a good practice – even if you still have your passport! – to retain a photocopy of the first page of your passport for your records. Store this copy in a safe place. This way, if your passport does get lost or stolen, you can more easily replace it (see Step 3).

First: Inform local Authorities, if possible.

Second: Inform your nearest Embassy/Consulate of your Country of Origin.

For the second step, obviously this depends on your country of origin, but the procedure for nationals and permanent residents of the United States of America is outlined here  and the government of the United Kingdom encourages people to cancel their passport at once to avoid identity fraud.

Third: Go through the Process to replace your Passport.

This process may vary, but the embassy/consulate you contacted in Step 2 will be able to help you. For US citizens, the documents you might need in order to replace a lost or stolen passport might include:

  • Police report, if available
  • Evidence of US citizenship (birth certificate, copy of existing passport)
  • Identification
  • Travel itinerary, if relevant

These are just some of the documents you may need, but because of these, it is a good plan to keep photocopies of important identification documents in a safe place in case a situation like this does arise. If you are a UK citizen in Germany, you may also want to check this page.

If you are a member of armed forces abroad, special requirements and procedures may apply. Again, check with your embassy/consulate, and also the branch of the armed forces to which you belong, for assistance.

What to Do if Your Passport Gets Lost or Stolen
Culture german customs and traditions

German Traditions – Christmas in Germany

Christmas in Germany
© Pixabay

There are a few similarities between American traditions, at the least, and German traditions for Christmas. However, even though in both the United States and in Germany Christmas is a commercial season, the season looks a bit different in Germany!
When I grew up (in the US), we had a glass pickle ornament on our Christmas tree, and we were told it was because of an old German tradition. As my family could easily trace their ancestry back only a generation or two from Germany, they took it to be fact.
Unfortunately, while these glass ornaments are often made in Germany (as are many glass ornaments for Christmas), the pickle ornament has never been a tradition in Germany by natives.


The Christmas tree, however, is!

While evergreen plants have been used to represent life eternal in human imagination for centuries, the tradition of the Christmas tree (Tannenbaum) has been carried over from Germany to other parts of Europe and also the Americas. It is said that during the Christianization of the Germanic tribes, St Boniface used the connection between renewal and everlasting life to dedicate the fir tree (Tannenbaum) to the Christ Child, which eventually displaced the oak tree which had been sacred to Odin. However, we can trace the use of the Tannenbaum  – raising it in rooms and decorating it – to around the 1550s due to looking at carols from the time.


Christmas markets

Germany has other major traditions for Christmas too, though, that sometimes we do not see as easily in the United States. The tradition of the Christmas market (Weihnachtmarkt; also known by other names) in Germany stemmed from winter markets to help people get through the cold winter months, and nowadays any town of moderate size in Germany will boast at least one of these markets. In the United States we only see these markets in larger cities, especially the cities that have a large German-American population; I do see them in other cities in Europe however, such as in Guildford, in England. These markets generally start when Advent starts (though some start as early as late November!) and run for about three to four weeks. You can buy food at these markets, too – everything from currywurst to cookies to cider. These markets can be found in other places across Europe, but the market in Dresden has the strongest claim for being the oldest Christmas market (1434) as far as we can tell!


The Christmas season

As stated, this means Christmas has a lot of commercialism to it, but instead of going to big stores, it has a bit more local flavor in Germany. Christmas itself is its own season, with German traditions incorporating Advent (the four weeks before Christmas Day) as well as “the twelve days of Christmas” between December 25th and January 6th – that is, between Christmas Day and Epiphany, the day in which the three wise men are supposed to come from the east to visit the newly born Christ child (as per the gospel of Luke in Christian scripture). While the gift-giving date has changed over the years from the festival of St Nicholas himself (December 6-7) to Epiphany (January 6th) to the more common Christmas Eve (Germans don’t tend to open presents on Christmas Day!), the idea of Christmas as an anticipated, joyous season to combat the dreary, cold days of winter has a long history in Germany.
What’s your favorite part of Christmas – or do you not celebrate Christmas at all? Let us know!

Christmas in Germany