Feiertage: What are we celebrating today?

With Halloween only about a week away, I’ve been thinking about holidays for expats. Which holidays are observed and how they are celebrated varies a lot around the world.

In the English-speaking countries alone there are great variations. (Canada’s Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October, while the US version is in November.) But as soon as you look at non-English-speaking lands, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland, there are even more differences. Even within Germany itself there are many regional differences as well, partly depending on whether a region is Protestant or Catholic. (For a country where few people attend church, Germany has an amazing amount of religious holidays.)

It just so happens that Halloween also falls on what is another holiday (Feiertag) in the Protestant (Lutheran) parts of Germany: Reformationstag (Reformation Day, which in Switzerland is the first Sunday in November). According to a recent US survey, most Americans do not know that it was the German Martin Luther (1483-1546) who “reformed” the Catholic Church and created Protestantism. Thanks to Luther, the 31st day of October is an official holiday in the Bundesländer that used to be part of East Germany (but not in Berlin). It’s a bit ironic, considering that East Germany discouraged religion. But on the other hand, it was also home to the Lutherstadt (Luther city) of Wittenberg.

I suspect that few Germans could explain what Reformationstag is all about, but surely they would outnumber the Americans who could do the same. The fact is that for most Germans, the day is now more identified with Halloween, a holiday they have increasingly adopted over the last decade or so.

To be sure, Halloween in Germany is not as big a deal as it is in the US (second only to Christmas in retail sales). But when I was living in Berlin two years ago, I saw many signs of Halloween, including pumpkins, decorations and even a few young children in costume. But I think Halloween in Germany is more for adults, i.e., a good excuse to throw a costume party. In Austria, the region around Retz (not far from Vienna) holds an annual Kürbisfest (pumpkin festival) in late October, with jack-o’-lanterns and family fun.

Speaking of children, German students (and teachers) not only get to enjoy holidays more often, but often longer than their American counterparts. Easter is a two-week school holiday in most of Europe. Then they get all the religious holidays scattered throughout the year – from Karfreitag (Good Friday) to Nikolaustag (Dec. 6). Many regions also have an additional winter (skiing) and/or a fall vacation. But they only get six weeks of summer vacation.

Thanksgiving – Erntedank in German – is another good example of “andere Länder, andere Sitten” (“different lands, different customs” or “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”). In Germany there is no national day of thanksgiving. It is strictly a religious custom that falls most often in early October, and is usually celebrated in a church. There’s no turkey with the trimmings and all that, but there is a harvest queen and a harvest crown. (See Erntedank for more.) Of course, American expatriates in Germany often manage to scrape together the “trimmings” for an American-style Thanksgiving.

While in Berlin, around Thanksgiving I went to visit my son, his French fiancée and her parents at the parents’ home near Paris. For the French, the fourth Thursday in November is just another day. I can’t even remember what we had for lunch or dinner that day. It was delicious, but I do remember that non-Thanksgiving Day reminded me of another time when I spent July 4th in Paris with some American friends stationed there. That would have been just another day as well, had it not been for an invitation to celebrate the day at the American embassy – with American hot dogs and beer.

However, US expats in the German-speaking countries also get to celebrate many familiar holidays, including Easter and Christmas. Many American Christmas customs – from the Christmas tree to “Silent Night” – come from Austria and Germany. Christmas in Germany (and most of Europe) is a very special time. My wife and I especially enjoyed strolling through the many Christmas markets in Berlin, and every town of any size in Germany has at least one Christmas market, if not several. And a German Christmas lasts for two days, as in England with Boxing Day.

So consider foreign holidays yet another expat perk – and yet another way that expats get to appreciate “andere Länder” and “andere Sitten”! For more, see Oh the many holidays by Sarah and the German Celebrations and Holidays from German-Way.com.