While Germans are known to be quite reserved, they love to celebrate and take pride in their holiday traditions. Like many countries, Germans have their own set of unique traditions, from placing clean shoes in front of the door on St. Nicholas Day to chicken dances at Oktoberfest.
If you’re planning on traveling to Germany, you might want to brush up on these traditions and customs. This guide is intended to help you learn everything there is to know about Germany’s major holidays and festivals.
Taking place the night of December 5th-6th, St. Nicholas Day marks the beginning of the Christmas season. On the eve of the fifth, children are expected to clean their shoes and leave them outside the front door for St. Nicolas to come fill them with chocolates, oranges, and nuts. Children who behave badly are likely to find a stick in their boot.
The story behind this tradition is that St. Nicolas, the patron saint of children, sailors, students, teachers, and merchants, was known as a protector of children who would anonymously give gifts. Today, St. Nicholas goes by several different names, such as “Belsnickle,” “Ruprecht,” and “Pelznickel.”
Learn German vocabulary: Schuh (shoe), Geschenk (gift), Kinder (children), Schokolade (chocolate)
Christmas is considered one of the biggest German holidays. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, Germans celebrate what’s called “Advent.” You’ll find traditional Christmas markets that sell handmade toys and decorations set up throughout towns.
On Christmas Eve, it’s customary for people to decorate their Christmas trees and attend church. (Fun fact, the Christmas tree originated in Germany!) On Christmas Day, time is spent visiting extended family and eating a traditional meal, featuring dishes such as apple and sausage stuffing, red cabbage, and potato dumplings.
Learn German vocabulary: Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree), Kirche (church), Spielzeug (toys), Familie (family)
Germans celebrate New Year’s Eve, also known as Silvester, much like Americans do—except Germans have a few traditions of their own. For example, when the clock strikes midnight, fireworks or fire crackers often go off. What’s more, people give each other four-leaf clovers, as a symbol of good luck for the coming year.
Whereas in the U.S. it’s customary for those at home to watch the ball drop on TV, German television stations broadcast the same comedy sketch, titled “Dinner for One,” year after year. Molybdomancy (Bleigießen) is another German New Year’s tradition, in which small lead figures are melted in a spoon and poured into a bucket of cold water. The shape the lead makes is then used to predict the future.
Learn German vocabulary: Feuerwerk (fireworks), feiern (celebrate), Fernsehen (television), Frohes neues Jahr (happy new year)
As perhaps one of the most well-known German festivals, Oktoberfest takes place in late September and continues into early October. Thousands of people from across the world travel to Munich to drink German beer and taste traditional foods, such as Schweinebraten, Reiberdatschi, and Weisswurst. The festival also has a variety of attractions, such as games, rides, and parades.
So what’s the history behind this popular event? Back in 1810, the citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the grounds in front of the city gates to celebrate the marriage of Crown Price Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The people of Munich decided to make the celebration an annual event, and the rest is history.
Learn German vocabulary: Ein Bier bitte (one beer, please), Spiele (games), Menschenmenge (crowd), trinken (to drink)
Held on October 3rd, Day of German Unity marks the anniversary of Germany’s unification, and is the country’s only national holiday. On this day, cities celebrate with festivals featuring food and entertainment for all ages. Unlike other countries, however, Germans don’t celebrate their national holiday with elaborate celebrations.
So what’s the historical significance of this German holiday? Less than one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, East and West Germany came together, and the Cold War was over.
Learn German vocabulary: Geschichte (history), Jahrestag (anniversary), Unterhaltung (entertainment)
Germany’s equivalent of Mardi Grais, Karneval or Fasching, is a pre-Lenten celebration that starts November 11th and ends on Ash Wednesday. The carnival season starts with “Women’s Carnival,” in which women dress up in costumes and cut off the ties of men.
Next up is Rose Monday, in which marching bands, dancers, and floats parade down the street and throw goodies to the crowd. The celebrations end with Shrove Tuesday, on which costume balls are held throughout Germany.
Learn German vocabulary: Kostüme (costume), tanzen (to dance), Musik (music), Spaß (fun)
Taking place on May 1st, May Day is a celebration to welcome spring. The German holiday is filled with lively music and dancing. It’s customary for towns to set up a Maypole, a tall wooden pole that is decorated with colorful ribbons and flowers in the town’s public square. In some regions of Germany, boys will deliver a Maypole to the home of a girl they fancy the night before.
Centuries ago, it was believed that witches held rituals the night before May 1st, so citizens lit fires and danced to ward off evil spirits. These traditions later turned into the customary lighting of bonfires and the raising of the Maypole.
Learn German vocabulary: Blumen (flowers), Frühling (spring), Feuer (fire), Übel (evil)
Germans and Americans celebrate Easter in a similar fashion. The four-day weekend starts with Good Friday, when many families eat a traditional fish lunch. The weekend continues with Easter Saturday, where people typically browse the markets for decorations.
In some northern regions of Germany, people will light bonfires to chase away the dark spirits of winter. Similar to the U.S., Easter Sunday is spent attending church and hunting brightly-colored Easter eggs.
Learn German vocabulary: Eier (eggs), Markt (market), Sonne (sun), Farbe (color)
The Dom Fun Fair, held in Hamburg, is one of the biggest fairs held throughout Germany. Held three times a year during the summer, spring, and winter, people from all over the country flock to Hamburg to eat, drink, play games, and enjoy rides.
The history behind this festival dates back to 1329, when citizens of Hamburg would organize a market located in front of the Cathedral (Dom) at the beginning of each season.
Learn German vocabulary: essen (to eat), Sommer (summer), Saison (season)
Many of the holidays in the U.S. are also observed in Germany. Germans, however, have certain customs and traditions that make these holidays unique.
If you’re traveling to Germany, consider participating in these traditions, or attending one of the festivals, to really get a feel for how Germans celebrate their culture!