The timing of most German school holidays match my British expectations. Two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, six weeks in the summer, plus the odd week somewhere in the middle of these blocks. This is not so different from home and behind each is a clear reason. To this, however, is one glaring exception: the Winterferien (winter break) – a week-long holiday a mere four weeks after Christmas (in Berlin at least – it differs from Bundesland to Bundesland).
Still refreshed from the Christmas break and motivated by New Year’s resolutions, the timing of this particular holiday always seems a bit odd. Four weeks just isn’t long enough to develop that sense of having slogged through countless early mornings and late night homework sessions. The bonus, I suppose, is that it makes going back after Christmas at the coldest and darkest time of the year a touch easier. “Just think, it is only four weeks until the Winterferien.”
As with many such traditions, there is a story to it. Winterferien are a DDR (GDR) legacy. Back in those days, DDR school children were given a three-week (!) holiday at the end of the academic half year having received their ‘Halbjahreszeugnis’ (half year report). The three weeks were not just a marker of having completed half a year at school, they were also an opportunity to go skiing or partake in other winter sports – often at state-run winter holiday camps. Interestingly, Austria and Switzerland had and still have Winterferien too. The initial motivation there was to save money on heating school buildings during the coldest weeks of the year, serendipitously at peak winter sport season.
Since re-unification most German Bundesländer have followed suit and the holiday lasts mostly now between one and two weeks. Many of our friends in Berlin also seize the opportunity for a skiing holiday, driving for hours with a car packed full of children and heavy-duty winter clothes, to Bavaria, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic. To native Germans, a 10-hour car journey is totally acceptable if it gives you a chance to ‘see real snow!’. It is especially important to the ‘Zugezogenen’ who grew up near the mountains and spent pretty much every weekend skiing as children. Despite the distance, they would like their children to have the same deep love for the mountains.
According to British standards, anything longer than a two-hour car journey is best avoided, particularly during congested school holidays. So our family, the Winterferien is the perfect opportunity for a visit from the grandparents. Berlin empties and the museums and swimming pools present the perfect playground.
But I wonder if it is contagious, this desire to escape the city and marvel at the mountains as you rush down a snowy slope, the wind in your hair and the promising whiff of Glühwein filling your nostrils as you near the bottom. Perhaps. Because when I hear colleagues’ Winterferien plans and how the children compare notes with their classmates, we are all starting to feel decidedly jealous. Next year I can see us tempted join the hordes on the motorway – the Harz (mountain range in Saxony) are less than three hours’ drive from here after all and the grandparents might enjoy the mountains too!