Here’s a quick rundown of the legal holidays and celebrations observed in the Rhein-Main area:
Neujahr (New Year´s Day) – January 1.
This day is mainly spent recovering from the long night before. Some people still uphold the old German tradition of eating either carp or pork with Sauerkraut on this day.
Karfreitag (Good Friday)
A moveable feast, it can take place any time between late March and late April. It commemorates the death by crucifixion of Christ. A number of solemn church services are held during the day.
Ostersonntag und Ostermontag (Easter Sunday and Monday)
The same as above, as Easter always comes two days after Good Friday. It celebrates what Christians see as Christ’s resurrection from the dead. These days, it also celebrates the achievement of the German candy industry, as baskets full of candies and chocolate eggs are presented – mainly, though not exclusively, to children. Also popular are painted hard-boiled eggs. Easter egg hunts or egg runs are still held in a few areas, though they have become extremely rare.
Tag der Arbeit (Labor Day or May Day) – May 1.
Large parades culminating in uplifting or defiant speeches in praise of working people characterize this day. More and more, the evening before sees dances and parties (Tanz in den Mai) sponsored by groups with various social or political agendas.
Christi Himmelfahrt (Ascension Thursday) – Moveable feast.
Celebrating the ascension of Christ into heaven, it falls 40 days after Easter, and thus is held between the middle of May and beginning of June. This day is also Father´s Day in Germany – which is generally not a family holiday! Father’s Day German-style typically means fathers slip out and engage in a lot of male-bonding and drinking.
Pfingstsonntag und Pfingstmontag (Whitsun or Pentecost) – Moveable feast.
Celebrates the Holy Spirit descending on Christ´s apostles with the gift of tongues. Always occurs in late May or early June, about 10 days before the next holiday.
Fronleichnam (Corpus Christi) – Moveable feast.
Celebrated in all the Catholic or quasi-Catholic states (e.g., Bavaria, Hessen and the Rhineland area). The highlights of this holiday are open-air masses followed by processions carrying the Eucharist through the streets – especially big in smaller towns and villages.
Tag der Deutschen Einheit (Day of German Unity) – October 3.
This holiday celebrates that day in 1990 when the two German states again became one country. Germany’s problem with open patriotism means that it is not usually celebrated with fireworks.
Allerheiligen (All Saint´s Day) – November 1.
A Roman Catholic celebration of all saints recognized or non-recognized, it is a legal holiday in the predominantly Catholic states – such as Bavaria and Rheinland-Palatinate – but not Hessen.
In addition to this full slate of legal holidays, there are a number of days and celebrations that you cannot ignore if you care to fully experience Germany.
Silvester (New Year´s Eve) – December 31.
This is generally celebrated by going to parties or a favorite restaurant. (Many restaurants offer special meals and entertainment programs on this evening.) At midnight, fireworks are set off in the streets, while children twirl sparklers and flares about. The fireworks often last the better part of an hour, after which people return to what they were doing before midnight, or somehow find their way home.
Nikolaus – December 6.
This is St. Nicholas´ Day, the day when little bags of candies are given to all children and most adults. If you want to maintain a good spirit in your office, be sure to give at least a couple of goodies to all the colleagues you work closest with.
Fastnacht, Fasching or Karneval.
Fastnacht is often called Germany’s fifth season. Its roots were pagan, when ancient German tribes invoked its rituals to drive out the bad spirits of winter. After Germany’s conversion, a thin Christian veneer was spread over this, to celebrate the last days of joy and merry-making before Lent. A quick look at the present-day celebration should convince you the festival has remained truer to its pagan roots than its Christian coating.
Fastnacht is that time when perfect strangers, usually protected by big rubber noses and fright wigs, will talk to you ebulliently on streetcars and underground trains; when other strangers, equally perfect, will hug you on the street or in a Kneipe, maybe even kiss you if they’ve had enough ebullience (liquid or otherwise).
The time is also dubbed die Tollen Tage (the Crazy Days), and that pretty well catches the tone of the festivities. Organized clubs of musicians and other performers around the area present the shows they’ve been rehearsing all year long. These musical and dance shows are interspersed with emcees or comics who tell terrible jokes spiked with even more terrible puns. And all of this fun lubricated by drinking, drinking, and more drinking.
Fastnacht is celebrated most devoutly in the Rhineland area, including Mainz, and Bavaria; the cities with the largest and wildest activities are Cologne, Mainz, Munich and Düsseldorf. If you want to see Fastnacht at its richest and fullest, you should be in one of those cities on Rosenmontag. This is usually the day for the big Karneval parades, though some cities hold them the day before. Hundreds of floats and marching battalions stream through the main thoroughfares, accompanied by loud music and wild screaming.
After the parades, people head off their separate ways, many of them to the big Karneval balls or their favorite pubs. Mainz remains a major bastion of Rosenmontag celebrations. But no matter where you are, all celebrating comes to an abrupt halt at midnight on Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday), when all pubs and restaurants have to close by either law or custom. (Close until early the next day, that is.)