Wednesday, 3 May 2023

RETROWURST: Public Holidays May 2005


Here we go on another trip back in time, to my reflections on the merry month of May in Germany, with its glut of public holidays. Off I went, following the tipsy processions through the fields and woods, slurping down Maibowle on the way.

I must have got bored of that topic as the article then lurched into the subject of greeting cards in Germany. If my memory serves me correctly, I had a project on the go on this theme.


It’s May and that annoying time of year again, if you work in the UK, when every time you call your colleagues in Germany or other continental countries, they seem to be having yet another public holiday or, worse still, they had a public holiday yesterday, which was Thursday, and are having the Friday off for good measure.


Public holidays come thick and fast after Easter here in Germany; there’s the first of May, of course (although we don’t move this around if it inconveniently falls on a weekend as it did this year; it would be most un-German to call the third the first, or whatever) and then we’ve just had Father’s Day and Mother’s Day in quick succession. Mother’s Day is understandable enough; this is the same as in the UK (on a Sunday) except that it’s in May instead of March, possibly to provide a better fresh seasonal flower selection. Father’s Day is a little more difficult to understand- it is actually Himmelfahrt or Ascension Day in the Christian Calendar but has been hi-jacked somewhere along the way to celebrate all that is manly and fatherly. Typically, it is a good excuse for men to go out for a long walk through the woods and fields, pulling a little cart heavily stocked with beer and Schnapps. These expeditions start fairly early in the morning and the progressively drunken procession lurches from one beer garden to the next, occasionally topping up in-between from the little cart. Sons are often included from a relatively early age, usually as an insurance measure to pull the cart or find the way home once the fathers become incapable. All this is rather different from the genteel coffee, cake and flower arrangements that constitute the typical Mother’s Day. So much so, that, recently, in the spirit of equality, groups of women can now also be observed on Father’s Day, crashing through the foliage to enjoy the odd glass of Prosecco.


No sooner are Father’s and Mother’s Days over than is Pfingsten or Whitsun and another long weekend (elongated even further in Frankfurt with the celebration of Waldchestag, or Woods Day on the Tuesday- yes, you guessed it- more drunken lurching and frolicking in the woods!) upon us. Sometime in late May or early June is Fronleichnam (or Happy Cadaver as I once heard it charmingly referred to; actually Corpus Christi) then that’s the lot in most of Germany except a few extreme Catholic strongholds until the frightening-sounding Tag der Deutschen Einheit in October.


You would think, what with Christmas and Easter and birthdays to add to all this, that the greetings card industry in Germany would be huge, but there you’d be wrong. Whereas, in the UK, Hallmark and their ilk have capitalised on the North American willingness to celebrate or commiserate every possible event or non-event of human life’s rich tapestry in card format, the greetings card market in Germany is under-developed which may be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. 


Starting with Christmas, the card selection is rather sparse. Maybe the Germans think that they are being damaging enough to the environment by insisting on real Christmas trees for all without then wasting the paper that’s involved in Christmas cards to every distant relative and acquaintance, including the dustmen. There are certainly no “bumper boxes” of 50 cards with the only nod to bulk-buying being packets of six postcards of snow scenes or candles. What cards there are have a very traditional flavour- you won’t find anything with “cool yule”, smutty poems about drunken reindeer or retro photos with 21st century captions here. And these cards are mostly sold singly.


When it comes to birthdays, there is a market but it’s somewhat limited. Your choice tends to be amongst “funny cards”, which resemble those “funny cards” you used to get in the UK in the 1970s- tall and thin with very thin sub-Carry-On humour, cards that even most grannies would find too twee or the pre-teen girl selection featuring either Diddl (a mouse with oversized feet who I think hails from Austria) or those grey patchwork teddies who look like baby seals waiting to be clubbed. For younger children, there is little sign of the whole character merchandising industry anyway and especially not on birthday cards. Whereas you’re confronted by Bob, Postman Pat, the Tweenies, the old Disney favourites and the latest Disney/animation heroes from the first birthday onwards in the UK, you would be very lucky to find a birthday card that even has an age on it in Germany (unless it’s an age over 60 - as I’ve said before, Germany is a very old-friendly country where seniority is a badge to be proud of!). 


For other occasions (with the notable exception of condolence cards), the choice is very narrow indeed: even those “no text all purpose” cards are rather hard to come-by. In addition, what there is tends to be very bland and generally inoffensive, verging on twee. Cards for new babies, for example, are almost never funny but show, instead, rose- or baby blue- tinted symbols and images of unrealistic infant perfection. No jokes about stinks or embarrassing noises here!


Perhaps the reason for this under-development stems back to the German dislike of superficiality. Many of the card-giving occasions themselves (those that are not traditional German celebrations) are regarded as another ugly and blatant attempt for the US capitalist machine to squeeze more money out of us. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are two examples of occasions that have been “pushed” in recent years and are treated with increasing cynicism. Furthermore, the thought process in Germany tends to go- if you really care about the person who is celebrating, then put some time, money and effort into doing something personal and relevant to them- giving flowers, picking up the phone, making a card yourself and so on, otherwise, don’t bother. Card-giving tends to send out signals here of a “halfway house”; you’re doing the simplest, cheapest thing out of duty more than anything else.


In a way, they do have a point. Anyone who has suffered a deluge of those corporate Christmas cards signed in a rush by people who neither know nor care about you or has wondered how many two-year-olds really appreciate the full cast of the Teletubbies, Tweenies and Balamory in cardboard form may well wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off forgetting the card and enjoying the celebration instead, even if it does involve trees, rain and some very dubious Schnapps.


Greetings cards are still pretty low-key in Germany, although there are loads around at the moment for Konfirmation. I wonder if the generation being confirmed at the moment (born around 2010) are a little bemused by these analogue relics. A popular alternative to cards for birthdays and the like seem to be those rather gaudy helium balloons. 

Fests are, thankfully, back on the calendar following Covid. Out here in the country, it’s not just Public Holidays, but almost any form of local produce, flora or fauna, from asparagus to apple blossom to potatoes that gets its own Fest.

I think I’ll give the Grillfest at the rabbit breeders’club a miss, though.

No comments: