I noticed as I was driving around yesterday, that my little Bavarian town has begun the process of decking the halls for the holidays. Before living in Germany, I maintained a strict rule of absolutely no Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. It becomes a little more difficult to resist the early pull of the holidays when you’re living somewhere that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and where what few Halloween decorations there are in the store sit side by side with the first Christmas decorations of the season. I’ve given in to temptation just a bit this year, first with the seasonal overlapping of children’s books. Our shelves are full of books from Halloween, Thanksgiving, St. Martin and Christmas. Then I gave in and pulled out the Christmas music, and the Christmas movies, but before I bring all the Christmas decorations down from the attic, I thought I would take a moment and reminisce about our autumnal celebrations, past and present.
Holidays and festivals in Germany are plentiful year round, and fall is no exception. Unlike Stateside, where fall is fairly quiet, Germany has a robust calendar of celebrations. Where we have Halloween in October, then Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving in November, they have ever so much more. My first year, I understandably overlooked many of the German public holidays and holiday celebrations. They simply weren’t listed on the calendar. Apparently, this is part of the shared culture. Everyone knows that nothing is open on those particular days, so the only days listed on the calendars were the Brückentag – the bridge days that created three- and four-day weekends. Those I got. As for the actual holidays, well, there was more than one day when we showed up at the Kindergarten only to find the doors mysteriously locked.
By our third year in Baden Württemberg, I had the holidays pretty well nailed down. I had adapted to the German calendar. Then we moved to Bavaria, which celebrates the most holidays of any of the German Bundesländer (states), which meant more holidays to keep straight on my calendar. So my calendar continues to expand as we learn a little more about each holiday, just as our world continues to grow as we combine the traditions of our childhood with the traditions of our current home.
The first of the public holidays in October is “Tag der Deutschen Einheit”, German Unity Day. This is the day commemorating the anniversary of German reunification in 1990.
Next on our list of celebrations is the German Thanksgiving festival “Erntedank”. Erntedank is celebrated in Early October, and unlike the US version, it is not celebrated with an eating extravaganza. In fact, it wasn’t until we moved to Bavaria that I actually realized it was celebrated at all.
As part of the Erntedankfest in our Bavarian town, the Kindergartens participate in a Sunday program with the Catholic Church. The weeks leading up to the fest are frenzy of preparation, learning songs, plays, and crafting the decorations each child carries with them. On the first Sunday in October, we assemble in the market square, where we listen to the children sing, then the priest speaks briefly and we finally form a procession and follow the town’s band to the church. Once there, we participate in a special Martinstag Mass, during which, the children perform a special play. Like children’s performances anywhere, it is adorable. Last year it was about a mouse, this year, it was the story of the potato king. Because the Erntedankfest is one to thank God for the bountiful harvest, the altar is usually bedecked with fruits, vegetables and other foods.
Next in the line-up of autumnal celebrations is of course Halloween. Although celebrated in a slightly different manner here than what I was accustomed to growing up, we’ve enjoyed our German Halloweens. Following my last post about Halloween, a German friend pointed out that the German Halloween, especially as it is celebrated as Rübengeister in Southern Germany, probably more closely resemble the original Celtic version. A dark night, believed to be full of dark creatures where the veil between the living and the dead became thin.
Following an evening of frights, the first day in November is Allerheilingen, All Saints’ Day. All Saints Day is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, and many of these days are also public holidays in at least some parts of Germany.
November 11 is the next of the holidays in the fall line-up. This is a day that is honored and celebrated for any number of reasons. It marks the official start of Germany’s fifth season, as Fasching is sometimes known. It is Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, and it is Saint Martin’s Day.
This was one of the first of many holidays we encountered that just weren’t widely celebrated in the US, and initially, I was stumped by it.
Martin was a Roman Soldier, who was born in Hungary, grew up in Italy and served in France. St Martin’s day is celebrated across Europe on November 11, but why? Perhaps it is his story that makes him so popular. Martin was an officer in the Roman Army, serving in France. One particularly cold evening, he came across a beggar as he was riding on horseback into the city. While his fellow soldiers paid the beggar no mind, St Martin took his sword and cut his warm mantle in half, giving half to the beggar. Later that evening, Jesus appeared to him in a dream, wearing the half mantle Martin shared with the beggar. Jesus told Martin to leave the Roman Army and follow him. Following an unexpected enemy surrender, Martin was allowed to leave the military and begin a religious life. Much later, Martin would reluctantly become Bishop of Tours. According to legend, when the people came to select him, he hid in the goose pen, hoping to avoid the appointment. The geese gave away his hiding spot, and he became bishop. The traditional meal on St Martin’s day is a goose.
The first Kindergarten my children went to celebrated St Martin’s day with a play and a parade. Standing in front of the Kindergarten, we watched the adorably costumed Kindergartners enact the scene of St Martin sharing his cloak with the beggar. Then we’d form a procession with the children who carried the lanterns they made in the school and we walked around the neighborhoods singing lovely St Martin’s day songs. It reminded me quite a bit of going Christmas Caroling as a child. Once we exhausted our litany of songs, we’d assemble back at the school for a small fest in the garden, with wursts and warm beverages. When we moved to Bavaria, the Kindergarten didn’t do a parade, but the first year they did have a small fest, complete with lanterns, carols and refreshments. We also happened upon the Catholic Church’s St Martin’s day celebration, but as we were unaware of it, I was caught without a camera to capture the procession of lantern toting singers, following St Martin who rode on horseback through the town’s main street. And this year, unfortunately, we were unable to attend that very same procession.
After St Martin’s Day is a Protestant holiday, Buß- und Bettag, a day of Prayer and Repentance. In Bavaria, the schools are closed, but it’s business as normal elsewhere.
Which brings me to the last holiday on our calendar in November, our sometimes not so traditional, US Thanksgiving dinner, which is a story all on its own!