When I wrote this, I started to realise how weird and complicated some German customs are.
I grew up with them, so there was never anything weird about German culture for me as a child/teenager. It was my normal.
Then I moved to New Zealand and I got to see my own culture from afar. I can only explain the feeling as flying over my life in Germany and taking a birds-eye view of all the customs, traditions and weirdness.
The problem with German culture is that there are a lot of regional differences in customs. I grew up in Bavaria, so I had to think very hard which of the below customs are exclusively Bavarian and which apply to the whole of Germany.
If you’re planning a trip to Hamburg in full anticipation of seeing someone in leather trousers (“Lederhosen”), please read this:
German customs explained by a German
1. Carnival (Germans DO like fun)
The carnival (“Karneval”, or “Fasching” in southern regions) is usually the first special occasion of the year for Germans. It’s celebrated particularly wildly in western and southern parts of Germany (Cologne, Mainz, Düsseldorf and Nuremberg are the hot spots). There are lots of parties and events going on during this time of year.
Carnival season traditionally starts on the 11/11 (11 November) at 11:11am. The highlight of the season is “carnival week”, the week before Ash Wednesday, which is usually end of January/beginning of February. Ash Wednesday then marks the end of carnival and the beginning of Lent leading up to Easter.
There are lots of little traditions and customs as part of carnival. Only to name a few:
- Carnival parades with fancy-dressed up people on wagons. The wagons often have huge sculptures on them that are critical of politics and society.
- In Bavaria, there is a tradition of comedians mocking politicians in funny speeches. Some of the braver politicians actually attend the event too.
- The Thursday before Ash Wednesday is dedicated to all women. Women are allowed to cut off men’s ties and men dress up as women.
2. May madness
1st May is Labour Day in Germany, so it’s always a holiday. The tradition of celebrating May goes way back in time.
Every region in Germany has its own traditions on 1st May and the night leading up to it – in some places, a May pole (“Maibaum”) is erected in the centre of each village or town. There are fairs and festivals everywhere in the country.
Usually, there is also a special (alcoholic) drink as part of the celebrations. In Bavaria it’s the “Maibock”, a veerryy strong dark beer (nothing for the light-hearted), in other regions it’s a May punch.
3. “Fest” time
I wouldn’t really call the Oktoberfest a “German tradition”, like a lot of people on the internet do. It’s an event connected to a tradition – a particularly big event with lots of people from all over the world getting hammered.
Late summer and autumn are for traditional festivals. What these look like varies from region to region. In Bavaria, every town or village will have their little “mini Oktoberfests” – with beer in steins, big tents and people wearing Lederhosen and Dirndl. In other parts of Germany these festivals are more like fairs with fun rides and the like.
In German, we call these festivals “Volksfest” (literally “festival of the people”), “Jahrmarkt” or “Kirmes”.
4. Who the hell is Santa?
In Germany, Christmas is a little different.
We get our presents on Christmas Eve (24th December).
We have two Christmas Days, so we can visit both sides of the family and eat even more food.
German kids don’t believe in Santa. They do believe in another bearded, jolly man with a funny hat: Nikolaus. The holy Saint Nikolaus brings us little presents, sweets and nuts on 6th December. For the good children, that is.
The naughty kids will be put into a sack by Nikolaus’s companion Krampus. Nice story that. Not scary at all.
So who brings the presents on Christmas Eve if not Santa? The Christkind of course! Quite literally that translates as “baby Jesus”, but, as a child, I always imagined the Christkind to be something like an angel.
5. The myth of leather trousers
To bust all myths about the leather trousers: The “Lederhosen” are part of the traditional clothes of southern regions of Germany (Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg). In the rest of the country, it’s pretty rare to see someone in these traditional clothes.
Other parts of Germany have their own traditional costumes but nowhere else is it so in style as in Bavaria. With the popularity of the Oktoberfest, the leather trousers and “Dirndl” (traditional dress) have become more popular again with younger generations.
Made in China or custom-made designs – nearly everyone in Bavaria has their piece of “Tracht” (word for traditional costume).
6. Mi casa es tu casa (only con Hausschuhe)
Something I found a bit disturbing at first when I came to New Zealand was that people don’t take off their shoes when they enter a house. They do sometimes but it’s not a no-go to leave them on.
Whereas in Germany, that is unthinkable. When you are over to visit someone or even get invited to a party, you are usually asked to take your shoes off in the hall.
A pro host will even offer you “Hausschuhe” (slippers). My parents, for example, keep stacks of slippers they’ve taken from hotels for exactly this purpose.
7. The German language and its twisted dialects
I count the dialects as a German custom here because they are a big part of life in Germany. There are hardly any regions where people speak pure standard German – nearly every German has a little bit of a regional something in the way they speak.
A lot of people having learned German in a classroom setting have problems with understanding Germans “out in the wild”.
That’s not saying it’s impossible to pick these dialects up. You can. You should just be prepared for it as a German learner.
8. Coffee and cake
Black Forest cake, Apple strudel, pastries with curd, fruit or poppy – Germans love their sweet stuff.
German bakeries are world famous for their delicious sins.
It is quite common in Germany to come together for afternoon tea, or “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake), at around 3pm. If there is no cake in the house – God forbid – there will be biscuits or chocolate.
9. Beer brewing
Beer brewing (and drinking) is another culinary custom in Germany. Again, there are lots of differences in brewing techniques and tastes between regions.
The Bavarian beer tends to be more malty, while beer in northern regions, the “Kölsch” from Cologne for example, is more bitter. The borders are fluid, of course.
Next to the big corporate breweries, like Paulaner, Beck’s etc., Germany has a variety of small local breweries – so plenty to taste!
10. It’s bread time!
Talking about food, I’d like to mention this one German custom – because I love and miss it so much: “Brotzeit”, which literally means “bread time”.
It is common in Germany, to have a cooked meal for lunch and eat “cold” in the evening.
You can imagine Brotzeit to be a bit like “tapas” in Spain. We would have a good loaf of bread (sourdough or brown bread) and some sausages, cured meat, cheese, spreads and other little snacks to go with it.
All of the above is put on the table for everyone to dig into. Brotzeit can be a bit of a family catch-up and can go on for hours.
Explore German culture
So, these were ten customs that give you a bit of an idea of what life in Germany looks like.
Like I said at the beginning of the post, German culture is very much made up of regional customs and traditions.
And exactly that makes Germany such a wonderful country to explore! No place is the same!
Leave a Reply