12+ Distinctly German Holidays and a Few Done Differently in Deutschland
Is there a German Thanksgiving?
What does Santa Claus do in Germany?
And what’s with all the tipsy dads on Ascension Day?
German holidays may not be so different from what you’re used to—especially the biggies like Easter, Christmas and New Year’s—but there are definitely some unique traditions.
Even the dates that the major holidays are celebrated may look a little different to you.
Whether you’re visiting Germany, curious about German culture, or already living there and counting down to your next day off, this calendar and cultural guide to German holidays has got you covered.
12+ Distinctly German Holidays and a Few Done Differently in Deutschland
Important German Holidays to Mark on Your Calendar
|Ostern||Easter||Easter Sunday as determined by religious calendars|
|Walpurgisnacht/Hexennacht||Walpurgis night/Witches’ Night||April 30|
|Christi Himmelfahrt||Ascension Day||April 30-June 3|
|Vatertag||Father's Day||April 30-June 3|
|der Erste Mai||May Day||May 1|
|Muttertag||Mother’s Day||2nd Sunday in May|
|Pfingstmontag||Whit Monday||May 11-June 14|
|Fronleichnam||Corpus Christi||May 21-June 24|
|Erntedankfest||German Thanksgiving||1st Sunday in October|
|Tag der Deutschen Einheit||German Unity Day||October 3|
|Martinstag||St. Martin's Day||November 11|
|Nikolaustag||St. Nicholas Day||December 5|
|der Zweite Weihnachtstag||the second Christmas Day||December 26|
Don’t worry if the German holiday names seem to run together at first. Below we’ve organized some of the most important and distinctly German holidays by season, with cultural tips to help you celebrate like a local.
Why Is May (and Sometimes June) the Best Month of the Year in Germany?
The answer to this question is simple: May is chock full of holidays, which means a whole heck of a lot of days off.
The holiday Christi Himmelfahrt (Ascension Day), celebrating the Christian belief in Jesus’ ascension to heaven, always falls on a Thursday. That means Friday is usually a Brückentag (“bridge” day)… which means a four-day weekend, baby!
Christi Himmelfahrt is also Vatertag (Father’s Day). In some regions, like the state of Brandenburg, fathers have the strange tradition of pushing around small carts and getting wasted on this day. Here’s to you, dad!
Muttertag (Mother’s Day) is also a May holiday, although it’s celebrated on a different day than in the U.K. or U.S. Muttertag is always on the second Sunday in May and mom gets spoiled in the way she deserves—gifts, brunch, chocolate, flowers, the works!
Other religious holidays during this month include Pfingstmontag (Whit Monday) and Fronleichnam (Corpus Christi). However, Fronleichnam is only a holiday in regions in southern and central Germany, which have a higher number of Catholics than the more Protestant north.
The actual dates of these holidays shifts each year according to when Easter is celebrated. Christi Himmelfahrt falls as early as April 30th and as late as June 3rd, Pfingstmontag falls as early as May 11th and as late as June 14th and Fronleichnam as early as May 21st and as late as June 24th.
In other words, depending on the year, you may get those blessed three- or four-day weekends in May or June.
If you’re religious, you might go to special services or mass at church during these holidays. But most people just enjoy the time off to chill in Germany’s long-awaited spring without any of the stress of the more major holidays.
Another May holiday is celebrated on the very first day of the month, der Erste Mai (May 1st, or May Day). May Day is celebrated in various ways depending on where you live.
In some rural regions, they still observe Walpurgisnacht/Hexennacht (Walpurgis night/Witches’ Night). Celebrated on April 30th, Walpurgisnacht is a bit like Halloween except there’s more fire and no costumes or candy. People light bonfires and stay up through the night and children play pranks on their neighbors, for example, by re-arranging their lawn furniture in the middle of the night.
In the morning, they prepare Maypoles, which they dance around while holding onto long ribbons attached to the top.
But don’t expect to see Maypoles in big cities, particularly in the north, like Berlin or Hamburg. In the bigger cities, May Day is linked to International Workers’ Day, and rallies and protests are organized in defense of worker’s rights. Some of the country’s most famous protests occur in the Berlin-Kreuzberg district, where May Day celebrations often end in an infamous battle between activist groups and the police after dark.
Planning a trip to Germany to see it all for yourself? Here are some basics to get you started.
Feasts and Faith in Fall: Erntedankfest and Martinstag
So here’s a question: Do Germans celebrate Thanksgiving?
The answer is yes and no.
Germans do have the holiday Erntedankfest (literally — “Thanks to the harvest festival”) but don’t expect to find any pilgrim hats in the mix.
Celebrated on the first Sunday in October, Erntedankfest is a religious holiday celebrated by both Catholics and Protestants. On this day, the church altar is decorated with sheaves of wheat and fruits of the harvest. The service includes singing special songs and a celebratory feast made up of freshly harvested produce, wheat, honeycomb and a decorative bread.
Thanks to the popularity of American TV series, some Germans have added a turkey to their meal, but this is by no means the norm.
Like Maypoles, you won’t find many traces of Erntedankfest in Germany’s cities. For the most part, this is strictly a holiday in rural regions.
Another religious holiday in the fall is Martinstag (St. Martin’s Day), which is held on November 11th. According to legend, St. Martin first worked as a Roman legionary before he was named the third Bishop of Tours. He was a simple and altruistic man who gave freely to the poor.
German children have all heard the story of how he once saved a homeless man from freezing to death by giving him half of his cloak. Hear that story told by kids (first in German, then English) below:
The traditional meal of this day is Martinsgans (Martin’s goose).
Although Martinstag isn’t a public holiday in Germany and not everyone participates in its religious aspects, every kid in Germany has done one tradition from this holiday many times: a Laternenumzug (lantern parade).
Children between the ages of around three to eight spend a week making their own lantern, which they attach to a light stick and take along for a walk in the evening through the streets with their school class, singing traditional songs like “Ich geh mit meiner Laterne” (“I’m walking around with my lantern”).
Curious to learn more authentic German songs? You’ll find tons of them here!
Celebrating German Reunification
Tag der Deutschen Einheit (German Unity Day) is held on October 3rd every year. This day commemorates German reunification in 1990, a little less than a year after the Berlin Wall fell.
Tag der Deutschen Einheit is celebrated each year with a ceremonial act and a Bürgerfest (citizen’s festival) with plenty of fireworks.
Christmas, German-style: What Are the Differences?
Like we hinted earlier, Weihnachten (Christmas) is mostly celebrated the same in Germany as in the U.S., but there are definitely some distinct differences.
For one, no putting up your tree in late November in Germany, folks! People usually buy (or cut down) their Christmas trees around two weeks to 10 days before Christmas.
Some people decorate the trees right away, but if they’re really going whole-hog-traditional they won’t put any decorations on the tree until Christmas Eve. Some of them put real candles on the branches—and a bucket right next to the tree in case something starts on fire!
As for Santa, he doesn’t come on his sleigh in the middle of the night. Since presents are opened on Christmas Eve in Germany, the kids are kept away from the Christmas tree while the Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus) flies through the window and sets up the presents. In southern Germany, this present delivery service is provided by the Christkind (baby Jesus, or an angel). When everything is finished, a bell rings, the doors open and the kids enter into that frenzy of ripped wrapping paper we all know and love.
Some families hire a student or have a family member come dressed up like the Weihnachtsmann or Saint Nikolaus. He delivers presents to kids after they’ve sung a song or recited a Christmas poem and then lectures them on something naughty they did that year as arranged in private with the tots’ parents.
The major holiday feast is always on Christmas Eve and the traditional meal is Weihnachtsgans, Rotkohl and Klöße (Christmas goose, red cabbage and dumplings). December 26th is also a holiday, der Zweite Weihnachtstag (the second Christmas Day).
German children don’t open stockings, but they do have Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day). On December 5th, all German children polish their boots and St. Nicholas delivers candy, chocolate and small gifts and places them in the shoe the next day–that is, if they’ve been good and polished them well enough!
Here are some great German phrases to learn for Christmas and New Year’s.
We hope this calendar and guide to German holidays has got you feeling festive and a little more fluent.