german customs and traditions

Tag der Deutschen Einheit – Day of German Unity

Tag der Deutschen Einheit - Day of German Unity
© Pixabay

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
german customs and traditions

The Beginning of May – May 1st in Germany

The Beginning of May - May 1st in Germany
© Pixabay

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
Culture german customs and traditions

Über Integrationskurse – About Integration Courses

Über Integrationskurse - About Integrationcourses
© Pixabay

Everybody is talking about immigration, refugees, whether they are allowed to stay or even who is allowed and who not. But what’s next? What happens if somebody comes to Germany and gets his permission to stay? Besides the urge of a flat and work, there is one crucial aspect: Learning the language and getting integrated into German society. Because both is not easy in many cases, there is the opportunity and, sometimes, even the obligatory to attend an Integrationskurs  – an integration course.

Who has to attend an Integrationskurs?

First of all, not everybody who is coming to Germany and is planning to stay is obligated to attend such a course. It would not even be possible because there aren’t even enough courses for those who need one. There is a difference between the obligatory and the optional courses. As soon as somebody gets his or her Aufenthaltsgestattung, the permission for staying in the country, he or she can apply for a course until three months after receipt.

But as said before, sometimes you have to take a course. This is the case if the Ausländerbehörde (the bureau for foreigners) has the opinion that you are particularly needy to get integrated into German society, for example, if you won’t find a job. This is also the case if you will receive social welfare of a particular kind or, for instance, your kids have problems at school that could be put down to you or your behavior.

What does an Integrationskurs include?

No matter if somebody is obligated or not, the Integrationskurs contains two different parts: Learning the language and learning about the culture of Germany. Both is, of course, very tightly linked and especially the language course ought to teach you about the cultural circumstances of your new home country. The language course consists of 600 hours of lessons, separated into basic and advanced courses. The focus of this courses lies especially on coming around in your everyday life as a new citizen of Germany. Consequently, you will not only learn how to deal with your neighbors or the people at the bakery but also how to understand German bureaucracy. The goal is “intercultural competence” and you can achieve it through ongoing analysis of the differences between Germany and the according culture of origin. At the end of this language course, you will have to pass the Deutsch-Test für Zuwanderer (German test for foreigners).

What happens afterwards?

After 600 hours of learning the German language, the second part – the Orientierungskurs (orientation course) – contains just 60 hours. It is designed to teach the participants about German culture, history, law and matters of dealing with your fellow citizens. Also, this course ends with a test.

The classes are not held by public governmental agencies, but by social institutions. They get a certain amount of their money by the German state, but also the participant of the course has to pay one-half of the costs. Because the payment for the social institutions depends on the number of participants, there have also been cases of fraud where the participants could only speak unsatisfactory German.

But after all, integration courses are a superb opportunity for new citizens to become a part of this country by learning not only its language but also its very own culture.

Über Integrationskurs - About Integrationcourses
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
Culture german customs and traditions

How Germany celebrates November

How Germany celebrates November
© Pixabay

Light in The Dark

November is a month we often overlooked between the golden days of October and the golden lights of Christmas. But in Germany, this month does not disappoint. See how international and national occasions are observed in the following article:

Halloween and Remembering The Dead in Germany

In America, costumes and pumpkins come out on 31 October for Hallowe’en, a festival of ghosts and spooky things. At the start of November, Mexico marks its famous *Day of the Dead* celebrations, lasting a full three days. When the days get shorter and the nights get darker, Germany also takes a few moments to remember those that have passed.

Of course, the influence of American culture and commerce hasn’t gone unnoticed. These days, children in big cities might ask for *Süßes oder Saures* (something sweet or something sour, an adaptation of Trick or Treating) and you’ll definitely see the pumpkin theme in bigger department stores.

Even though the German-speaking world doesn’t have a traditional Hallowe’en, its origins are echoed in *Allerheiligen* and *Allerseelen* (All Saints and All Souls). These two Christian holidays mark the deceased. It is traditional to visit the graves of late relatives and light a candle for them.

Dedicating the month to those that have died continues in the tradition of *Volkstrauertag*, the national day of grieving. Just like international versions of Remembrance Day, the Germans take this day to remember those that have fallen in the wars. There is a minute’s silence held in the *Bundestag*, the German parliament.

Religious Holidays in November

Germany’s public holiday structure shows the influence of its different Christian denominations. In the predominantly catholic South, the *Bundesländer* are given a public holiday on 1 November for *Allerheiligen*.

This is different in the East, an area with a protestant majority. The five Eastern *Bundesländer* Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen (Saxony), Sachsen-Anhalt and Thüringen observe *Reformationstag* instead. This celebration coincides with Hallowe’en on 31 October and marks the occasion of [Martin Luther] publishing his influential 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Sachsen-Anhalt. This act ended up leading to the formation of the Protestant Church of Germany. The Protestant version of All Souls is *Totensonntag*, held on the last Sunday before Advent starts.

11. November at 11 o’clock: A Quick Moment of Carnival

All that doom and gloom can only be lightened up with a bit of foreshadowing to carnival season. With precise German timekeeping, the *Faschingszeit* begins “am 11.11. um 11 Uhr 11” (on 11/11 at 11:11). Germany’s carnival clubs consider the number 11 the craziest of the numbers. The reason is not confirmed, though some speculate this is because it stands between 10 (commandments) and 12 (apostles). Either way, there cannot be much talk of any kind of “season” with this one. German carnival enthusiasts may spend the day storming town halls and spreading joyful mischief, but carnival quickly returns behind the scenes until February when the real fun kicks off.

St Martin’s Day is Celebrated with Lanterns and Bonfires

If you are British, you know that 5 November is a day for bonfires and celebrations in the dark. But did you know that Germany has a bonfire and lantern tradition of its own to offer?

*Martinstag*, the day of St Martin, celebrated around 11 November, is dedicated to St Martin of Tours. He was a rich and generous knight who was riding along on his horse one wintry night as he came across a beggar by the side of the road. Seeing the poor man freezing, Martin cut his own coat into two pieces and shared it with the poor.

The generous knight eventually became a monk and a bishop, recognised by the church for his modesty and generosity. You can practice your German and watch his story in this cute video by WDR. Today, children craft lanterns and go on a walk to a bonfire site, singing songs about lanterns and St Martin.

The easiest song to learn is “Laterne, Laterne”, with its three lines of lyrics:

*Laterne, Laterne*

*Sonne, Mond und Sterne*

*Brenne auf mein Licht, Brenne auf mein Licht*

*Aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht!*

(Lantern, Sun, Moon and Stars. Burn up my light, but not my precious lantern!)

No matter how you choose to spend your November this year, with this many celebrations and occasions we guarantee that your month more to offer than expected.

How Germany celebrates November
Culture german customs and traditions

Halloween in Germany

Halloween in Germany
© Pixabay

It’s on again on October 31st: It’s Halloween. But while Americans are becoming nervous about the upcoming celebrations, the pumpkin-carving and the quest for the perfect creepy, yet sexy costume for the party, Germans are uncertain what to think. Is Halloween just another holiday imported from the US to make a profit or is it something that was also celebrated way before the Teutons came out of the woods?

The Development in Germany

It is more or less clear that Halloween isn’t a German holiday. To proof that, it is enough to look back to the past, let’s say, the 1970s. Halloween was not celebrated and mostly not even known. Not exactly on October 31st, but on November 1st, Germans are traditionally celebrating another holiday: Allerheiligen/All Saint’s Day. This particular Christian holiday is not nice to celebrate. Traditionally, you are thinking about your relatives and loved ones that have passed away by coming together at the graveyard. People sing sad songs and are freezing in the gray and unhappy November rain. This time is traditionally everything but happy or worth being celebrated with parties, as you can see. In some Bundesländer, the day is also a “Stiller Feiertag” with Tanzverbot. That means, you are not allowed to dance that day – or to be more precise, clubs and bars are not allowed to play loud music and to make their guests dance.

How is Halloween celebrated?

The last fact is also something that still influences the way Halloween is celebrated, especially in areas where this Tanzverbot is still in practice. In this mainly Catholic Bundesländer, Allerheiligen is an official holiday. But what do you do when you have a spare day as a youngster but no opportunity to go out the night before because of official Tanzverbot? You have to start a private party – and celebrating Halloween is a fair reason to do so.

Who celebrates it?

Celebrating Halloween in Germany is thus more or less exclusively something young people do. Not only private Halloween parties are very popular, but also clubs and bars are having decoration and Halloween-themed parties (sometimes without dancing, though). Germans do dress up for Halloween, but in a different way as Americans would do. The creepy thing is way more important for them. Ghosts, Zombies, Killers – you can see gruesome and bloody costumes in Germany for Halloween, but not many regular or sexy ones. The reason for that is simple: There is another opportunity in Germany to get dressed funny or sexy called Karneval/Fasching.

What do you have to be aware of?

Because of the many American TV series and movies, Halloween is an import to Germany. That’s why kids are more and more likely to do trick-or-treat. But unlike the kids in the movies, it doesn’t work well in Germany: Especially older people are not used to it and mostly do not even agree with celebrating an American tradition. The doors remain closed. But nevertheless, you can see kids in costumes walking around and begging for candy. Sometimes they will get some; mostly they don’t. But if you are old enough to drink, you can also have a fun day in Germany on October 31st.

Halloween in Germany
Culture german customs and traditions

German Easter Traditions

german easter traditions
© Image by christty via Pixabay

The Importance of Easter in Germany

In countries with a Christian history, Easter is one of the most important holidays of the year. Combining ancient pagan symbols for fertility and life (the egg and the bunny) with the message of hope and renewal, Easter also marks the solid turn from winter firmly into spring. If you live in the United States or other countries, and see traditions like the Easter egg or decorating grasses/branches, those traditions may have come from Germany.

First, a note: Easter is a variable-date holiday, which means that its date changes from one year to the next! Germany uses the Western Christian reckoning but make sure to consult a calendar for exact dates if you are making plans.
There are spring parades that occur some three weeks before Easter. These are called Sommertagszug (Summer Day Parade) and are basically a time when people tell winter that it’s time to leave.

Also, leading up to Easter, there are Easter-season markets held around various parts of Germany, selling things like decorated eggs, wreaths, spring themed ornaments, chocolates shaped like eggs or bunnies or all sorts of other shapes, and other crafts. These are called Ostermarkt (Easter markets) and can be quite fun to go to! A note for the families, however: many of the chocolates in Germany around this time may contain alcohol, so be careful when giving chocolates to young children.

Ostereier – Easter Eggs

Now about Easter eggs. Easter eggs are a major part of the Easter tradition in Germany: notably, hanging the decorated eggs up in bushes or in trees. These trees are called Ostereierbaum (literally: Easter egg tree) and a notable one, decorated since 1965, was the Saalfeld Eierbaum. 2015 was its last year open to the public, but you can still see its website here (English version)
You might also see, in some areas, city wells or fountains decorated with evergreens and with eggs also. This is a newer tradition, developed in the 20th century, though it uses old symbols of life – the idea of decorating or “dressing” a well exists in other countries, where it is seen as honoring water (as water is necessary for continued life) and the life and well-being of the community (by going to a communal well).

Easter Traditions

For Easter itself, the observances properly start on the Friday before Easter (Good Friday). Historically, people ate fish on this Friday – this was because of a pun on the Greek word for fish, which was used to signify Jesus Christ in early Christianity. Within churches, the crucifix or cross may be covered in a shroud, representing the story of Jesus being condemned to death and dying via crucifixion on a Friday.

On Saturday or Sunday (depending on the tradition) there are vigil services and Easter bonfires. Bonfires help bring the community together again, and are again a symbol not only of the Christian idea of overcoming sin and death, but also signifying previous traditions signifying warmth and fertility.

On Easter Sunday, many relax with their families and friends. They may go to church or they may not; however it is a time where people visit each other, and children may hunt for Easter eggs or get given some decorated eggs and candy. An Easter meal is consumed – particularly during brunch or lunch time. This Easter meal historically has made use of lamb (again, because of Christian symbolism: the idea that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb of God). There may be more chocolates and pastries than usual at the Easter meal – after all, it’s meant to be a festive meal, so people tend to concentrate on the desserts.

Decorations put up for Easter often last through the week, ending roughly a week after Easter Sunday.

german easter traditions