A bit Danish and a bit German
Take Christmas, for example. Let’s begin with my first Christmas in Germany which I celebrated with my future husband’s German family. I knew that the Germans, like us, celebrate Christmas on 24th December. And naturally I was interested to find out whether we would be eating roast pork as we do back home – or perhaps duck or goose? However I wasn’t prepared for a Christmas meal which consisted of sausages and potato salad! A quick survey of my German friends revealed that this kind of Christmas meal is quite normal. A lot of people gave the reason that on 25th December they indulge in a big feast, so they don’t want to eat too much the day before. But to a Danish person this kind of reasoning is incomprehensible! In Denmark every day of Christmas is celebrated with a big feast and that seems to work fine, doesn’t it?
My next shock was that the lovely Christmas tree just stands in the corner and isn’t used for anything – because in Germany you don’t dance around the Christmas tree; you decorate and admire it. On the other hand, the midnight mass in the German church was really lovely. The church was overflowing with people, we sang Christmas carols and I learnt that Glade Jul (Silent Night) was originally a German song.
After Christmas comes Lent, but before Lent we celebrate the carnival time. Personally I find that German children celebrate carnival time in a rather dull way. Of course they wear disguises and beg for sweets but they don’t 'beat the cat out of the barrel', (i.e. use sticks to beat a hanging barrel which is filled with sweets and other treats). And they don’t get any 'carnival branches' (birch twigs decorated with sweets and small gifts). And their carnival doughnuts are cooked in deep fat frying pans!
On the other hand, German adults seem to have come up with something quite amusing for carnival time – especially those who live in southwestern Germany. In cities such as Cologne, Mainz and Düsseldorf there are major carnival celebrations which take place on several consecutive days. And the preparations begin a few months in advance. People meet at carnival clubs, make costumes, write songs and organise big processions with decorated carnival floats, from which huge quantities of sweets are thrown down to the children. The carnival time is also a time when the Germans tend to overcome their usual inhibitions. Just as in Denmark, where the sales of the pill increase noticeably after the weekends on which the traditional Christmas celebrations (‘julefrokost’) take place, the same thing happens in Germany after the carnival time. That says something about the prevailing mood which is unleashed during these occasions!
A much more peaceful tradition is our midsummer celebration - 'sankthansaften'. This is the tradition that I miss the most; perhaps because it’s not celebrated in Germany. Every year at the end of June I get a major urge to set fire to a pile of wood with a witch on top of it and to sing Vi elsker vort land (We love our country). But how do I explain to the Germans that we send the witch to Blocksberg – in Germany? The fire would most certainly be reported to the police by my neighbours. And the song isn’t easy to sing. So I hold back and content myself with longing for 'sankthansaften' in the far north.
I’ve also discovered some new traditions. Instead of the Danish midsummer celebration, the Germans celebrate ‘Martinstag’ (St Martin’s Day). This takes place on 11th November, the evening before the feast day of St Martin. In Germany this is a festival for children. They make their own paper lanterns, put a light inside them and trail through the streets in a St Martin’s procession while they sing songs. I took part in one of these processions when my children were at kindergarten. Walking through the November darkness, singing songs while carrying a lighted lantern, creates a lovely atmosphere. It’s a bit like 'sankthansaften'.
Yes I really like Germany and the Germans. I reckon we can learn a lot from each other. I feel similarly to Hans Christian Andersen when he referred to “different countries, different customs”. But I’d also like to be allowed to be Danish – at least now and then. So we should make the most of the best things each country has to offer and dance around the Christmas tree, before we 'beat the cat out of the barrel' or construct a lantern and fly on a broomstick to Blocksberg singing Glade Jul or Silent Night!
Translated into English by Annemarie Goodridge
Maj Westerfeld lives in Berlin. She studied French and Dutch Philology at the University of Copenhagen and moved to Germany in 1997. She works as a freelance translator - mainly translating literature.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Denmark