November in German Culture and History


November: The Mourning Month and Its Fateful Dates

The first two days of November are significant in the Christian religious calendar. November 1 is All Saints Day (Allerheiligen). November 2 is All Souls Day (Allerseelen). In Germany, most of Europe, and all over the world where the western Christian church is dominant, these two days are devoted to remembering and praying for the “faithful departed.” Indeed, the Latin (Roman Catholic) name for this day is In Commemoratione Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (“commemoration of all the faithful departed”).

Two Catrina figures

Two Catrina figures. The Mexican Calavera Catrina (“dapper skeleton” or “elegant skull”) began as social satire in 1910. Today the Catrina figure is associated with the Day of the Dead observance. PHOTO © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com (Wikimedia Commons)

Although Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), a national holiday, is perhaps better known and a bit more colorful, if you visit some German cemeteries on the same dates, you’re likey to see a similar observance, complete with candles. The main difference is that in Germany there is no all-night vigil in which family members gather near the grave(s) of their “faithful departed,” as in many parts of Mexico. Germans also tend not to celebrate in quite as colorful a manner as in Mexico. You may not see Catrina skeletons, sugar skulls, or decorative masks in Germany, but you will see lighted candles. (See photo below.)

As history (and two world wars) would have it, November in the western world has become a month for commemorating the dead — whether fallen in war or otherwise. Since the 14th century, the Roman Catholic church has dedicated the month of November to the dead, and in the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, a time to remember and honor those who fought and died, originally in the Great War ended by the armistice that took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on November 11, 1918. (In fact, the date was known as Armistice Day prior to World War II.) This day, known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day in some other Allied nations, is also a holiday in France and Belgium. Continue reading

Nude bathing and traffic signs: 10 things that didn’t fall with the Wall

Lichtgrenze - East Side Gallery, Berlin

Temporary Lichtgrenze in Berlin to celebrate 25 years since the fall of the Wall
PHOTO: Andrea Goldmann

Last Sunday (9th November) Berliners celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A momentous occasion movingly marked by temporarily dividing the city again with a 9-mile “Lichtgrenze” made up of illuminated white balloons along the old division, which were then let off into the misty night sky at the same time the first people crossed the border all those years ago. Though the few remaining stretches of the Wall in Berlin are only there for the sake of history and tourism, not all aspects of GDR-life have been so thoroughly dismantled. From politics to bathing habits, what has survived these past 25 years? 

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Laternenfest – Lantern Festival

It was during our second winter in Berlin that I first became aware of Laternenfeste (lantern festivals). We had little twin babies and, despite early heavy snows, I spent much of my time traipsing icy streets pushing the pram whilst they slept. There was a period in early winter when afternoon after afternoon I saw lines of young children – pre-school age – muffled up against the cold, swinging pretty coloured lanterns and singing in shrill juvenile voices. I was intrigued, but not enough to find out what it all meant. My reaction was more one of ‘oh, that’s ever so sweet, it must be some sort of German tradition’ and then to forget all about it, as you do when you can’t imagine your own booty-wearing, rattle-shaking babes ever being old enough or robust enough to march the streets wearing boots and singing songs.

But since then, the unimaginable has happened and our children are now old enough and robust enough for their own winter boots and to attend a local nursery pre-school (KiTa). And last week, for the first time, they too joined the lines of young children piping out songs about lanterns and swinging their own homemade contributions. Off we trudged on an almost chilly November afternoon in the gathering gloom, through the streets, round the park and up to the top of a nearby hill, to find a big bonfire waiting and cups of warming Glühwein (mulled wine). Once there, we sang more songs about lanterns, watched sparks leap from the fire, and ran around in the dark until our hands were too cold and it was time to go home. Continue reading

2009: The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

photoThe original red Info-Box in 1998.
Larger view
Photo: H. Flippo

Today’s Berliner Zeitung has a story about the return of the red Info-Box to Potsdamer Platz for the 2009 anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. (Has it really been almost two full decades since that historic event?) The original Info-Box (also spelled “Infobox”) was visited by millions of tourists (including me) and Berliners from October 1995 until it closed on the last day of the year 2000.

Intended only as a temporary structure to help inform visitors about the new Potsdamer Platz complex, no one anticipated how popular the first big red cube would become. The Frankfurt architectural firm of Schneider + Schumacher designed a three-story container-like box on stilts — with panoramic views of the vast Potsdamer Platz construction site. Inside the pavilion there were films on video monitors, along with pictures and models of the project. In the end, the cube built on the former East German “death strip” became a huge tourist attraction. At least 25 couples chose to get married there.

The new info-cube is also red, but smaller than the original, and has a slightly different purpose: to tell how Berlin has changed over the past 20 years. Like the original, the new red cube has audio-visual presentations and interactive media. Of course, the really big “Grenzöffnung” (border opening) celebration will take place around the Brandenburg Gate on November 7-9, 2009. A huge “Fest der Freiheit” (Freedom Festival) will include a symbolic fall of the Wall represented by a display of falling dominoes on November 9. Before that, various other commemorative events will take place all across Berlin between January and November. The new Info-Box will stand on Potsdamer Platz until Easter. Two smaller “touring” Info-Boxes will be set up at various locations in the German capital. See the special www.mauerfall09.de site for more.

HF