Happy May Day! A Long Standing German Holiday…

Known as Der Erste Mai (& sometimes Tag der Arbeit), May Day is an ancient festival that began to welcome the spring weather and to “drive away evil spirits”. Today, it is primarily an occasion to campaign for and celebrate workers rights, particularly in Berlin. May 1 is a public holiday in all German states. It is a pretty big deal in Germany where labor unions are strong, radical traditions are still alive and memories vivid. It’s not so much about the traditional peasants dancing around a Maypole as it is about demonstrations and banners. You might hear the word “Solidarität” (solidarity) a good deal.

In a sense the labor union culture is the third major religion of the country (the first two being Evangelisch and Katholisch). There is no separation of Church and State in Germany, and while everyone is free to opt out of tax contributions to the officially recognized churches, they are a part of government more or less depending where you live. In Köln-Cologne where I lived and helped raise a family for several years, this resulted in what seemed like innumerable holidays for public workers. This was a result of an alliance of the Catholic Church, which has long been powerful there, celebrating many seemingly obscure holidays, and the labor unions, which are very strong in what used to be the industrial heartland of Nordrhein-Westfallen (NRW), where Köln is situated. The unions seem to have integrated these holidays into labor contracts to improve pay and working conditions, but the result was that we as foreigners were often surprised when schools, banks and government offices were closed for holidays we had never heard of!

It’s all a part of living in a new country and learning old traditions. It can teach the richness and depth of older civilizations as well as their follies and missteps. It’s also a good reason to have a link to www.schulferien.org where all major holidays are listed!

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