Domestic Life and Special Occasions in Germany
The German home is an orderly one and German cleanliness is legendary. Children are taught very early to be polite, courteous, and responsible. There are some regional differences that are noted by Germans themselves. Northerners feel that Bavarians (in the south) take life too easily, are too fond of good living, and speak with an unintelligible dialect. But the southern Germans counter this with the opinion that northerners are too dour and serious even if they grudgingly admit that northerners are honest and very hardworking.
Whether from the north or south, in most German households there is little argument that father is the head. More recently the traditional view that the “woman’s place is in the home” is fast disappearing as increasingly women join the workforce.
Kitchens are small but efficient and make use of modern gadgets and electrical appliances. Small appliances are of high quality and often perform several functions. Earthenware mixing bowls, strong wooden spoons, pudding and cake molds, rubber, wooden, and metal spatulas, as well as wire whisks all find a place in the German kitchen. Even if the weekdays are busy ones, the hausfrau will find time to prepare a special dinner at least once a week, while home baking for the holidays is traditional. Many kitchens boast specialty baking utensils: the kugelhopf tube pan with its diagonal spiral fluting; springform cake pans; flan and torte pans; a springerle roller or wooden springerle molds for cookies. Utensils are chosen for use and for quality and all are bought to last.
In rural areas cold cellars are used for winter storage of root vegetables, fruit, the family crocks of pickles and sauerkraut, and shelves of home preserves and jams. But food storage is not such a necessity in the city. Germans prefer their foods fresh. Baked goods, and often vegetables, fruits, and meats are bought daily. Many specialty stores, small open-air markets, and huge supermarkets and hypermarkets with incredible selections of local and imported goods make shopping a delight. Still other specialty shops feature a wide range of fine foods such as imported cheeses, different breads and rolls, and sausages and meats of every description. Milk too is not delivered to homes and is often bought daily at nearby dairies.
Present-day Germany is almost equally divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants and each group celebrates not only religious and saint’s days but also join in beer and wine festivities, regional holidays and, in some areas, harvesting and planting festivities.
Hundreds of local and regional festivals and holidays are celebrated throughout Germany and vary according to locale, as do customs and foods. The South is predominantly Catholic while the North is mostly Protestant. Plain cakes, bread, and cheese are served at funerals, while the happier family occasions such as weddings, engagements, and confirmations call forth wines and opulent meals from the best of the regional and family specialties.
The wedding-eve party is called polterabend and, aside from the special treats and wine that are served, guests traditionally bring baskets or armloads of old crockery and these are cheerfully smashed because “broken dishes bring good luck.” Humorous and teasing speeches and songs for the new couple help make a boisterous and fun-filled evening. Another traditionally German evening is the herrenabend, an evening for men only. Not quite the same as the familiar “stag party,” the herrenabend usually takes place for the purpose of discussing business or politics while eating and drinking. Of course no one minds if, towards the smaller hours of the evening, drinking predominates over conversation.
Spring and fall see the proliferation of many local beer and wine festivals but none as overwhelming as the Munich Oktoberfest held annually for a sixteen-day spree of beer-drinking, singing to the oompah-pah bands, dancing, and snacking on roasted chickens, sausages, and whole spit-roasted oxen all in gargantuan quantities. The lest, which originated in 1810 to celebrate Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage, proved to be such a good idea that it has been an annual event ever since. The boisterous good fellowship has spread to other countries where citizens of German origin make their homes, and, as with the Irish Saint Patrick’s Day parade, everyone, regard-less of ethnic background, happily joins in. Together with the fun and frolic, eating and drinking, nearby amusement parks offer all manner of games and rides as well.
The German’s annual calendar is rung in with a quiet family evening on New Year’s Eve centered around the traditional specialty of Polish carp: a whole carp gently poached in a rich sauce of beer, gingerbread crumbs, lemon peel, almonds, and raisins all traditionally served with kartoffelklosse and kraut. The festive meal is served with a flaming punch bowl and completed with an array of baked treats. Catholics eat no meat on New Year’s Eve, Protestant families may enjoy other local food favorites.
Three King’s Eve, Epiphany or Dreihonigsabend signifies the end of the Christmas season (Twelfth Night) and is greeted with the serving of wine or punch and konigskuchen, a loaf cake with raisins, almonds, and rum.
Arriving in bleak mid-winter is the brightest carnival of them all: Fasching (elsewhere called Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday), usually a three-day bash of costumes, masks, parades, processions, parties, and revelry unmatched at any other time of year. Crullers called fastnachtkrapfen are the special treat everywhere but feasting and drinking before the Lenten restrictions is the general rule. The new spring beer, called Bock, is celebrated during this time as well and is enjoyed with bockwurst sausages that are the specialty of the season. Holy Thursday (just before Good Friday) is also called Grundonnerstag and the spring festival is heralded with the serving of a green vegetable soup made of fresh spring vegetables, while other dishes made with eggs and spinach are also traditional. Good Friday or Karfreitag is a solemn day when all businesses and shops are closed. For the pious, no meat is eaten; only fish dishes are allowed. Churches open their doors revealing huge displays of fresh flowers and flickering candles.
Easter or Oster arrives with the special aroma of home-baked fruited breads and cakes, candies in the form of eggs and rabbits, and a traditional Easter dinner featuring ham served with pureed peas. For the children, the Easter Bunny does his job of hiding colored eggs throughout the house and in gardens.
A pleasant spring ritual is the Whitsun Festival or Pfingstausfug, a traditional spring outing when good luck is considered to be the prize of the first person to hear a cuckoo, and everyone enjoys communing with nature.
Germany is the land where many of Christendom’s cherished Christmas traditions originated. These include the Christmas tree, many Christmas legends and hauntingly beautiful Christmas carols, as well as some of the earliest staging of Christmas nativity scenes (by Saint Francis of Greccio, 1225) and primitive Christmas plays.
The holiday begins early with the many fairs held at this time of year, especially the one held annually at Nurnberg. Here one finds every conceivable decoration and toy for Christmas: a fairyland of color, design, and fun. And for those who get hungry while shopping, there is the famed Nurnberg lebkuchen and pfefferkuchen (spiced squares and cakes).
While the first taste of Christmas may be at the fairs, the real beginning of the festive season is on Saint Nikolaus’ Day, December 6. The evening before, all children hang up socks or hoots and find them filled in the morning with sweets and small gifts. But the real excitement is the house-to-house visit of Saint Nikolaus himself with his helper, Krampus, a horrid furry little monster who carries a switch for bad children. But most children have been good and therefore happily receive the saint’s good cookies and good wishes. Delicious smells drift from every home as mothers almost daily prepare batches of honeyed and spiced cakes, cookies and fragrant breads all called weihnachtsgeback. And everywhere little naschhatzen (pilferers of sweets) are nibbling tastes of stollen, lebkuchen, spritz cookies, springerle, and spekulatius.
Christmas Eve brings tree-lighting and carol-singing and most families go to church. Surprise gifts from Kris Kringle appear mysteriously under the tree after everyone returns from church services. Since pious Christians refrain from eating meat on Christmas Eve, the traditional dinner of Polish carp baked in all its glory with beer, nuts and raisins is usually the highlight of the meal surrounded with potato dumplings and dishes of kraut. Punch or wine and fine bakery end the meal while others still nibble on fruit and nuts. Christmas Day is a quiet family day in Germany and the special dinner will likely be the regional specialty of roast hare, roast pork, or a fine fat roasted goose. Marzipan fruits and little figures are part of the decorations and the nibbles too.