St. Nicholas Day, December 6
Traditionally, on the evening of December 5th, children leave a shoe outside of their bedroom door with a letter to St. Nick. They joyfully wake up in the morning to see that their letter is gone, and their shoe is filled with small presents and candy. Although I did not experience this holiday in Germany, my family is of German descent, so I was raised with this tradition.
Christmas, December 25
Leading up to Christmas, Germany becomes a living fairytale with all of the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas markets) scattered throughout the country in both small and large cities. At these markets, vendors, nestled in attractively decorated wood stalls, sell typical German food and handcrafted Christmas ornaments and decorations. German Christmas markets inspired many similar markets that have popped up all over the globe, including my hometown of Chicago.
Advent calendars and advent wreaths are also a common sight in many homes during the four weeks prior to Christmas.
Christmas trees are very popular in Germany and many families decorate the tree together. It is also common for the Germans to send out annual holiday cards and listen to primarily American Christmas music when out shopping.
Families and friends gather on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when presents are exchanged. Churchgoers attend Christmas services either late on Christmas Eve or on Christmas day, which is a national holiday.
A popular Christmas treat is Stollen, a delicious dense cake with nuts and fruit and sometimes a marzipan filling. The unique shape with tapered ends is meant to resemble baby Jesus wrapped in a swaddling cloth. Germans also enjoy eating Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and Zimtsterne (Cinnamon Stars), which all taste delicious with German’s famous Glühwein, known to us as hot mulled wine.
St. Stephen’s Day, December 26
This national holiday celebrates the martyrdom of the first Christian, St. Stephen.
New Year’s Eve and Day, December 31 and January 1
New Year’s Eve is a festive occasion when families and friends gather for long and elaborate meals and parties. There are also fireworks in villages and cities both on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, which is a national holiday.
The Epiphany, January 6
Unlike in Spain, the Epiphany is only celebrated in Germany by a few practicing Catholics and is not very popular amongst the rest of the population.
Valentine’s Day, February 14
Valentine’s Day is fairly popular in Germany, especially for lovers. It is becoming widely celebrated and commercialized.
Good Friday, Easter and Easter Monday (National Holidays)
These three days are all national holidays. Homes are decorated with eggs and bunnies during the Easter season. This makes sense, considering the Easter bunny, Osterhase, originated in western Germany.
An Ostertrauss, or Easter bouquet can be found in most homes and consists of budding tree branches arranged in a vase and decorated with colorful and sometimes very detailed beautiful Easter eggs. Some zealous Germans might make an Ostereirbaum or Easter tree, which is the same concept on a larger scale – decorating an entire tree that is in the yard.
Another interesting tradition is making a bonfire on Easter to symbolize the new light and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Labor Day, May 1
This national holiday is a day when no one works, but does not have any traditional event associated with it except for a few demonstrations, marches or public speeches.
Ascension Day (40th day of Easter)
Originally, this national holiday celebrates Jesus Christ’s ascent into heaven, and that is celebrated in the Catholic region of Bavaria. But this day was also selected as Father’s Day in Germany because this is the day that Jesus Christ returned home to his Father. In many parts of Germany, especially former Eastern Germany, it is a male bonding day, during which groups of men bike, hike and get together to smoke, drink and become intoxicated – not exactly the Hallmark image of Dad that we grew up with in the U.S.
Whit Monday (7th Monday after Easter)
This national holiday is the public observance of Pentecost that celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles.
German Unity Day, October 3
Since 1990, October 3rd has been commemorated as Germany’s national holiday celebrating its reunification. While some people celebrate this day, it is not as exciting or popular as Independence Day in the U.S., once again due to Germany’s complicated history.
Halloween, October 31st
During the past couple decades, Halloween has gained popularity and dressing up for parties is more and more common. Pumpkins or Kürbis are purchased by many families who carve them and turn them into Jack-o’-lanterns. Trick-or-treating has even started to appear in a few areas, but is not widespread.