I have been living in Austria and Germany for almost six years now (oh my God, WHERE has that time gone??), and I feel that I have gotten to know these cultures pretty well; I have learnt a lot about these peoples, their histories and ways of life and I have probably picked up more German characteristics and idiosyncrasies from living here than I would like to admit. The Austrian/Germanic countries are so rich with tradition – we all know about the famous Oktoberfest and Karneval – but there are so many other weird and wonderful traditions and celebrations that you might not have heard of before, at least, they were completely new to me when I first moved here! I thought I would pick out three of these to feature here in this blog post, to give you a little insight into what life is really like in these countries.
May Pole / Maibaum
Many of the most characterful (or just plain strange) German traditions originate in Bavaria, and the May Pole is a typical example of such. Although the first of May is celebrated all over the world, I find the German custom, which dates back to the 16th century, particularly lovely!
Each year on May 1st, the town or village organises a ‘fest’ or party in the centre square. This generally involves lots of beer (the Germans tend to use any excuse to get together and drink beer), würstchen, Bavarian music, perhaps a procession through the village and, most importantly, a ceremony to erect the infamous May Pole. The pole, or tree, will typically be decorated in the traditional Bavarian colours of blue and white, and anything else unique to that particular village, celebrating the local industry and art. The ceremony will then usually be followed by more drinking, music and lots of dancing.
Another romantic feature of the Maibaum celebration is when the young lads in the village put up their own mini May trees in front of the houses of the girls they like. This usually happens during the night on the last day of April so that the girls get a nice surprise when they wake up on the first of May! The little May trees may also have a heart on them with the names of the girls for whom they are intended. How sweet!
A Man’s 30th Birthday
This was definitely one of those German traditions which I had NEVER heard of and took quite a while to understand! When a man turns 30, his friends usually organise a big celebration on the city hall steps. They will first give the lucky guy a funny costume to dress up in, and then cover the steps in beer bottle caps (I have learnt that these are happily donated for the occasion by local pub landlords!). The birthday boy is given the task of sweeping the steps… for the whole evening on his birthday! He will start first with a toothbrush, then perhaps a small dustpan brush, and work his way up to a broom over the course of several hours, while more and more bottle caps are consistently poured onto the steps by his encouraging friends.
While he is busy sweeping, his friends must also make sure that any girl who happens to walk by is stopped and asked to answer a few questions (I was one such girl, which is how I came to find out about this tradition!). When a girl is persuaded to stop for a few minutes, the birthday boy will break from his sweeping and ask her a few silly questions, such as ‘when was your first kiss?’, or ‘what is your favourite quality in a man?’. All of this accompanies constant drinking and only ends when the friends of the poor man feel that he has done enough (or is too drunk to continue!), OR when he gets a kiss from a virgin girl.
When I was researching the meaning of this unique celebration, I discovered that in the beginning, it was intended only for single men on their 30th birthdays, and by sweeping the stairs they could show girls what good and hard-working husbands they would make! I have to admit this isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind when I see a drunk 30 year old drunkenly sweeping beer bottle caps on steps, but it definitely makes for a fun and memorable (or not) birthday party!
Tie Cutting In Cologne
I only recently found out about this last tradition, and writing about it now after having just told the story of the men’s 30th birthday, I am wondering if it an occasion for the women to get their own back on the men!
There are so many Karneval celebrations throughout Germany, and they tend to differ from city to city and region to region. However there is a rather special day during the Cologne Karneval which is really worth knowing, especially if you are a guy! The day is known as ‘Weiberfastnacht’, or Woman’s Day, and it always takes place on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. On this day the women will make sure to bring scissors with them to work and will happily cut off the men’s ties! By the way, there is no argument here – if you are a man, and happen to be wearing a tie on this day, you absolutely must let the women cut it off, so don’t forget to wear an old one! The idea is that the tie symbolises a man’s authority, at home and in the work place, so here is a chance for women to show their own authority with an opportunity to take down the powerful image of the men, who must subsequently walk around all day with a blunt cut tie (although, lucky for the men, they will receive a Bützchen, or little kiss on the cheek, in return). Some women will join the parades in the streets carrying big foam scissors to show their solidarity, and shops even sell purposefully ugly ties for the occasion.
It should also be noted that on Women’s Day, the women of the house have full authority to leave their children in the care of their husbands, so that they can celebrate their day together with a ‘girls night’!