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2. Traditions and Cultural Oddities

2.1 German Holidays and Festivals

Holiday Dates

The German Information Center maintains a well hidden list of German holidays with information on their origins.

German Name English Name Observance Variable
Jan 1 Neujahr New Year
Jan 6 Heilige Drei Könige Epiphany BW, BY, SN
Feb 19 Rosenmontag no official holiday, but free day inmost parts of the Rhineland 7 weeks before Easter Monday
Apr 5 Karfreitag Good Friday Friday before Easter Monday
Apr 8 Ostermontag Easter Monday First Sunday after the first newmoon in spring
May 1 Tag der Arbeit Labour Day
May 16 Christi Himmelfahrt Ascension Day 11 days before Whitsuntide, a Thursday
May 27 Pfingstmontag Whitsuntide 7 weeks after Easter Monday
Jun 6 Fronleichnam Corpus Christi BW, HE, NW, RP, SL.In SN and TH  only towns and villageswhich are mostly Roman Catholic 10 days after Whitsuntide, a Thursday
Aug 15 Mariä Himmelfahrt in SN, in BY in towns and village which aremostly catholic
Oct 3 Tag der deutschen Einheit National holiday
Oct 31 Reformationstag Reformation Day BB, MV, SN, ST,In TH only towns/villages with mostlyprotestant population
Nov 1 Allerheiligen All Saint's Day BW, BY, NW, RP, SL.In TH only towns and villages which aremostly Roman Catholic
Dec 24 Heilig Abend Christmas Eve Half a holiday, after noon
Dec 25 Erster Weihnachtsfeiertag Christmas Day
Dec 26 Zweiter Weihnachtsfeiertag Boxing Day
Dec 31 Silvester New Year's Eve Half a holiday, after noon
German Holidays; dates are given for 1996.

Federal State
BY Bayern
NI Niedersachsen
BW Baden-Württemberg
NW Nordrhein-Westfalen
BE Berlin
RP Rheinland-Pfalz
BB Brandenburg
SN Sachsen
HB Hansestadt Bremen
ST Sachsen-Anhalt
HE Hessen
SL Saarland
HH Hansestadt Hamburg
SH Schleswig-Holstein
MV Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
TH Thüringen
ISO 3166 Abbreviations for the Federal States

Easter Ascension Day Whitsuntide Fronleichnam
1997 Mar/30 May/8 May/18 May/29
1998 Apr/12 May/21 May/31 Jun/11
1999 Apr/4 May/13 May/23 Jun/3
Some of the upcoming dates of variable holidays.


In Germany the season of Carnival is referred to as Karneval or Fastnacht or Fasching depending on the region. It's very different from e.g. Brazilian or Venecian (Venice/Italy) Carnival. In general, Carnival is a Catholic festival. In predominantly protestant areas you'll find little Carnival activities. It is the period before Ash Wednesday, before the Lent, the fasting-days, begin. People take it as the last opportunity to drink, eat and frolic to their hearts content. Until Easter things will be going to some extremes.

A common trait throughout Germany is people's liking for costumes and disguises, may they be traditional (e.g. in Baden or in Venice/Italy) or leaning towards the bizarre side as in the Rheinische Karneval, (i.e. between Mainz and the Dutch border along the river Rhine) Naturally, children like to dress up but adults do so, as well.

The Alemannische Fasnet, celebrated mainly in Southwestern Germany and northern Switzerland, has its roots in pagan beliefs and is preoccupied with chasing ghosts and demons by intimidating them with very elaborate scary wooden masks, fire and the terrible noise of pipes and drums. One of the most impressive displays of the alemannische Fasnet can be watched in Basel, Switzerland at the Narrensprung (run of the fools). For the Narrensprung, which starts early in the morning between 4am and 5am, all the lights in the city of Basel are turned off and men disguised in traditional costumes parade through the streets, accompanied by marching bands playing traditional songs.

The Rheinische Karneval has its roots in the French occupation of the Rhineland following Napoleaon in the early 1800s, mocking the occupiers. Traditional Karneval costumes are modeled on the military uniforms of that time. The season begins on 11/11 at 11:11 a.m. at which time people on market places of every major Rhineland town celebrate Hoppeditz Erwachen (The awaking of Hoppeditz, a figure in the Carnival). Typical music is played, disguised people drink beer, wine, champagne... and Hoppeditz rises from his bed (or grave). This beginning mark is not really a big event, however, very quickly normal day-to-day life takes over again; Christmas passes..., Silvester passes... but eventually Carnival gets going! Some Sitzungen start being held here and there; people commence at halls for a show that starts precisely at 7:11 (or 8:11) p.m. On the stage a panel of eleven (the Elferrat) presides the Sitzung and some artists (who can be ordinary people) come on stage. Music groups perform and dance groups and especially Büttenredner -- men and women who make mocking speeches about everyday life, politics (local, national, international) and so on. The most important of the evening are, however, the Prince and Princess of Carnival. Every town has their own royal couple. The Prince and Princess' guards bear wooden rifles and wear uniforms resembling those of Napoleon's armies which occupied the Rhineland from about 1800 to 1815. Their manner of conducting serves to ridicule military in general.

The hot phase of Karneval starts on 11:11am of the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, the so-called Weiberfastnacht (Carnival of women), the day women take control. (Wearers of ties beware! Women might carry scissors to trim your manly accessories -- and you won't even be allowed to complain!-) 1997-01

From Saturday to Tuesday parades take place in many towns; the most important ones are on Rosenmontag ... starting at (you guess!) 11:11am. The three big ones are in Düsseldorf, Cologne and Mainz. In the parades you see some brass bands, a lot of disguised people, a few guests from abroad (US brass bands, Brazilian groups; only in the big parades) and many Motivwagen. Those are tractors with a trailor displaying a motive, some paper dolls representing celebraties or politicians to mock about... other Wagen carry the Prince and Princess, or their guards or the children prince and princess. All parading groups throw sweets or other goodies into the watching crowd. Spectators along the way shout Helau or Alaaf (depending on the area.) There are different traditions to end up Carnival. On Ash Wednesday 0:00, Carnival is over. The Hoppeditz goes back to his grave, or the nubbel has to be burnt...

St. Martin

According to legend, St. Martin was a knight in Roman times who charitably cut his cloak into two with his sword and shared it with a beggar who was about to freeze to death. This memorable event is celebrated to this day in November, mainly in Southern and Western Germany. St. Martinstag is the 11th of November. The celebrations involve little kids walking around town at dusk on November 10th, carrying home-made lanterns. The lanterns used to be made from hollowed out beets with a face carved in, similar to what Americans do to pumpkins around Halloween. The kids parade threw town singing traditional songs, sometimes accompanied by a St. Martin on a horse. In some regions the kids also go gripschen (grabbing) by singing songs in front of houses, and being rewarded with candies, apples and nuts.

After the parade, kids traditionally get a Weckmann and a cup of hot chocolate, while the adults devour a Martinsgans (goose). The Weckmann is a sweet breadroll, 25-30 cm long, in the shape of a man with raisins for the eyes and often a white clay pipe in his mouth.

Advent, St. Nicholas and Christmas

Of course, the usual disclaimer applies: regional variations are to be expected!


Advent is very similar to the way it is celebrated in the US, except for the wreath displayed with four candles on a table instead of being hung on the door. The Adventszeit are the four weeks (each concluded with an Adventssonntag) before Christmas. It is customary to light only the number of candles on the wreath that correspond with the count of the Advent Sundays having passed. Consider the old nursery rhyme:

Advent, Advent,
ein Lichtlein brennt.
Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier --
und dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür.
Instead of the last line, you may find the rather sarcastic variation:
        und wenn das fuenfte Lichtlein brennt,
              dann hast du Weihnachten verpennt.


St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas is based on a bishop of Myra (in what is today Turkey) who lived in the 4th century AD. He is said to have provided charities to people, in particular children. He is usually portrayed in a bishop's habit with a Mitra and a red coat.

In the catholic tradition, on the eve before December 6th St. Nicholaus comes to the children's houses, accompanied by his servant, Knecht Ruprecht (sometimes called Krampus). He reads out of the golden book all good and bad attributes of the kids and the generaly well-behaved children will get small presents (traditionally fruit, nuts, and cookies) But the bad ones receive a birching from Krampus...and the really bad apples are taken away in Krampus's big sack.

In protestant regions, children will put a pair of shoes, well cleaned, or a dish in front of the house's front door for Nikolaus to fill small presents in, on the evening of December 5th. The next morning, they find some chocolate, oranges, nuts or similar there.


Christmas is celebrated on the evening of December 24th -- the Heiligabend. As a child, you will be told to remain in your room from late afternoon on, because the christ-child (das Christkind) will come tonight. Without you knowing (or something like that), your parents prepare the Christmas tree (Weihnachtsbaum). Choice of ornaments varies dramatically from household to household, ranging from all-natural and home-made with wax candles to the plastic tree with flickering electric lights. 1997-01

After sunset (maybe 6pm) you are asked to join your parents. This is typically done with a special little Glöckchen that serves only this one moment in the year. After the Bescherung (when the gifts are unwrapped) the special Christmas dinner is served. 1997-01

In a varition, dinner may be served before the Bescherung in the room different from where the Weihnachtsbaum is. When the family has almost finished dinner one of the parents will sneak out and ring the little bell. The other parent exclaims: "Oh, das Christkind was just here!" which is your cue to open the door and for the first time you see the Weihnachtsbaum -- and all the presents underneath. Then everyone wishes everybody else a "Fröhliche Weihnachten"; you open your presents and play until you fall asleep under the tree. This is the one night in a year, when you do not have to go to bed early. 1996-03

2.2 Walpurgis Night

On April 30th, in the Harz Mountains, near Hahnenklee and Bad Grund some odd things happen. At Blocksberg and Brocken you will see some of the few last real witches leaping over camp fires...and (if you are really lucky) taking off on their broom stick into the air for their annual journey to where no one knows... 1996-04

2.3 Wedding Traditions?

Of course, there is no single accepted tradition. You'll find lots of peculiar behavior surrounding this event...some of them:

I remember being surprised at seeing in Idar Oberstein, Rheinland Pfalz, people carrying dishes out to the street and smashing them, and a young couple, turned out bride and groom (to be?) trying to keep them swept up. Apparently the custom is that all old dishes should be broken before the wedding, and the marriage will be excellent if the couple can keep up with the sweeping.

During the reception the bride is kidnapped by the wedding witnesses (best man etc.) to a local bar or restaurant, the groom has to go rescue her and pay the bill at the local bar.

German receptions last very long into the night - at midnight the bride's veil comes off and is given to the next girl/woman who is going to get married.

The first dance is danced by the bride and the groom, it is traditionally a waltz! The next dance is only for bride with father and groom with mother, while bride's mother dances with groom's father. The day/night before the wedding there is the tradition of the Polterabend, where everybody who knows of this wedding is coming to the bride's house and brings old dishes (ceramics - NO glass - bad luck) and breaks them in the front yard (drive way), this is done for good luck! And the bride's parents generally provide refreshments - beer (very German). The bride and the groom have to clean up everything that same evening with a broom, and they have to do it each time somebody breaks something. This is to demonstrate that the bride and groom will cooperate in good as in bad times.

Germans wear wedding rings on the right hand! And the groom and bride have identical rings (wedding bands - no diamonds).

In Northern Germany they like to play a trick on the wedded couple, while they are in church, getting married. As they come back they will find all their furniture on the roof of the house where they are going to live, and all the doors locked, i.e. barricaded, no way to get in the normal way. The first obstacle for the couple to take then is to somehow get into the house and the furniture off the roof, beds, chest drawers and everything, usually through a hole in the roof. No outside help, but everybody will be watching ... 1996-04

What I thought was quite romantic about their weddings was how they decorate the hood of the bride/grooms wedding car with lots of flowers (compared to the junk they put on and tie to Americans cars) They form a procession after the wedding and drive through town honking their horns. Friendly Germans always honk back wishing the couple "Good Luck". I've witnessed this in a few parts of Germany, and think it is a nice tradition! 1996-04

2.4 Card games -- Skat and Doppelkopf

The card games homepage has a list of the most popular German card games.

Skat is the German cardgame, it is played everywhere, from bars to after Christmas dinner at home, recreationally with a case of beer next to the table, with small or large money stakes, and competitively at official Skat tournaments. If you see people play cards in Germany, chances are they are playing Skat.

Unfortunately, the rules are somewhat complicated to learn, but it is well worth the effort. A very rough description of the rules can be found here. The International Skat Homepage is dedicated to Skat. It contains an extensive explanation of the rules, and some links to proprietary Skat software and Skat shareware , among other things.

If you don't feel like Skat, and if you have big hands, try Doppelkopf or Schafkopf. They both have their origins in southern Germany, mainly Bavaria, where they still are very popular.

2.5 Glühwein Recipe

3 cups
red wine
1 cup water
1/2 cinnamon stick
3 cloves
1/2 lemon's juice
some lemon peel
Ingredients for Glühwein (Lechner's Kochbuch).

Mix and heat up everything (don't let it boil, though); serve hot. 1996-02

And a variation:

Take a huge pot or kettle. Place in it 1/2 cup of water. Add 1 tbsp ground cinnamon and 1 tbsp ground cloves and juice of 1 lemon. Bring to a boil. Add a 4-liter jug of burgundy (or other cheap red wine). Heat, but make sure the temperature stays below 170 degrees Fahrenheit (boiling point of ethyl alcohol). Add sugar to taste and brandy for additional wallop if the outside temperature drops below 0. Walk, don't drive home!

And one more:

3 cups
red wine
150 ml water
1 cinnamon stick
10 cloves
2 small pieces of ginger root
75 g sugar
700 ml red wine
1 orange for taste
Another list of ingredients for Glühwein.

Cook a thick syrup from the water, the spices and the sugar. Add the red wine and mix with the syrup. Reheat, but don't let it boil. Take out the spices (e. g. pass the Gluehwein through a sieve) and serve immediately. 1997-01

What is it used for? Well, you drink Glühwein during the cold times of the year. Imagine, you are strolling over the Christkindl's Markt on a weekend before Christmas. Or it's one of those really cold winters again, when the Steinhuder Meer freezes over and you can go skating for hours -- what nicer thing to warm up right on the ice at one of those booths set up for the season! 1996-10

2.6 German Cooking

You can find over 11,000 German recipes at the Kochbuch of the Unix AG in Kaiserslautern.

2.7 Flea Markets and such

In many of the majors cities there is a tradition to have a regular official place for haggling. All the odd stuff that you might have accumulated on the attic you can sell at any price you want (or get.) Rather than celebrating individually scattered yard sales, all those with an interest in such free micro-marketing come together on, say, every first Saturday of the month or (in a sufficiently large city) every weekend.

The conventional ways of placing classifieds in the newspapers are also quite popular. Der Heisse Draht is one of more well-known papers which are entirely devoted to direct private ads of stuff. You now even find it on the net. 1996-10

2.8 Kneipen, Discos, ...and curfew time

In most German towns and cities, businesses that sell alcoholic beverages have to close at some curfew time (which is under the ordinance of the local government) ...unless they apply for a special permit (for which they pay quite a bit; discos are a typical candidate to purchase such a permit.) In some areas, such as Berlin and Hamburg, there is no curfew at all -- hence the saying Berlin is open all day long. Exceptions will also be granted for particular festivities (see, for instance, Fastnacht) 1997-06

2.9 Who are these freaks in black suits asking me for money ?

Sometimes when you sit in a German bar enjoying a beer, one or a few guys in black corduroy suits with fancy hats will approach your table, knock with their knuckles on it and recite a poem, the gist of which is that they are traveling and asking you to give them some money for food and accomodation.

Since the Middle Ages, when crafts where organized in guilds, traveling has been an integral part of the education of any craftsman. Before one can become a Meister (master craftsman), one has to be a Lehrling (apprentice) with a Meister for usually three years. Upon completion of the Lehre (apprenticeship) one becomes a Geselle. The guilds for most crafts, in particular the ones for carpenters, masons etc., mandated that every Geselle had to travel for a certain number of years without returning to their hometown, except in case of family emergencies. During these years, Gesellen would travel from town to town seeking temporary employment with various Meister.

These travels are called Walz and are to be done in traditional dresses, which for carpenters and masons consists of a black corduroy suit, their traditional work clothes, a top hat or a bowler, depending on the trade, a bandana, used to wrap and carry all belongings on the road, and often a fancy walking stick. Traditionally, the Walz had to last three years and one day, during which time the journeyman walked from town to town. The perks of these journeys included one free meal at the local restaurant and sometimes a close encounter with the current employers wife, the Frau Meisterin.

In modern times, the Walz is no more a requirement for becoming a Meister, since we now have more effective ways of disseminating the skills and knowledge for a particular trade. In recent years, it has become more and more popular again with Gesellen in the traditional trades, and the people bothering you in your favorite bar are most likely legit and on the Walz (those corduroy suits aren't exactly cheap).

Apart from the now optional Walz other bits of the medieval guilds that have survived the centuries are the requirement that you have to be a Meister to be allowed to have your own shop and take apprentices, the Meisterstück (master piece), a piece of work of high quality and demand that you have to produce in rder to become a Meister and the Richtfest.


The Richtfest (topping out) is a traditional part of any building construction in Germany. As soon as the Rohbau, the shell of the house including the roof structure, is finished, it is decorated with a fir wreath or fir tree and everybody involved with the building gets together for a celebration with drinks (beer, not cocktails) and some food.

This tradition goes back to the traveling Gesellen on the Walz: for the traveling carpenters the Richtfest was the time to move on, their work on this building had been done and they were supposed to go and find work somewhere else. So apart from celebrating a milestone in the construction of the building, it was also a goodbye party for some of the people working on it.

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