Don’t slip, but slide: Getting into the New Year, German style

Already made up your New Year’s resolutions? Do you actually believe in them? Let me go out on a limb: Probably not. And neither do Germans. Despite their reputation as being reliable and efficient: New Year’s resolutions are as silly in Germany as in the rest of the world. Other German New Year’s celebrations are just as stereotype-crushing. Germans can indeed be silly, noisy, jolly and … superstitious!

„Guten Rutsch” is what Germans wish each other when they meet for the last time before the calendar changes to a new big number. This translates to “slide well”, and it makes lots of sense. The “Silvesternacht” is a huge party, and the next day, “Neujahr”, starts with a hangover for many in the country. Describing this event as a slippery slope to slide down is quite apt.

Despite the huge amounts of sparkling wine, Prosecco and Champagne consumed on this occasion, getting drunk is not the main activity of the evening. The main purpose of the fizzy beverages is to end up in posh champagne flutes to clink at midnight, accompanied by hugs, kisses and the mandatory “Prosit Neujahr” – an ancient term roughly translating to “cheers to the New Year”. The word prosit is originally Latin and made it into everyday language as “Prost”, replacing the older “Zum Wohl” (to health). As a side remark: This is a very important piece of knowledge. Clinking glasses and saying “Prost” should not be forgotten when you are out drinking, as is the rule to look the others straight in the eye while doing so. Looking away is not only impolite, superstition also suggests that it will have detrimental effects on a person’s sex life.

Securing a safe future

Superstitious people have to cope with a multitude of mistakes they could make, since every little mishap could spoil the fresh start of the new year. Washing laundry between Christmas and New Year, for example, will almost certainly cause the death of a relative. Not paying off your debt at the end of the year is likely to cause financial troubles down the road – although debtors will leave you alone between Christmas and New Year, even the notoriously merciless German tax office.

A little blurry is the situation when it comes to eating fish. On the one hand, carp is among the many lucky charms Germans believe in, so having fish for dinner seems like a good idea, yetis also a dangerous thing to do. The name “Silvester” goes back to the fourth century Pope Silvester I who died on 31st of December 335. Legend has it that non-believers witnessing his death choked on fish bones. This is obviously a good hint to avoid eating fish by all means, especially if you are a non-believer, whatever that might mean in this day and age.

Thank God, there are numerous more auspicious dishes you could enjoy instead, like Fondue or Raclette, both of which can be enjoyed for hours in a group of friends spending the evening together. These dishes are accompanied by a range of classical beverages – for example “Bowle”, which funny enough many Germans consider to be an English word, while English people would call this a “punch”. Fruits and juice are combined in a seemingly endless amount of different recipes, most of them – of course – alcoholic. So is the most iconic Bowle of all – the Feuerzangenbowle (flaming hot tongs punch), celebrated in the timeless movie of the same name, starring German cinema legend Heinz Rühmann as a doctor who pretends to be a “Pennäler”, a school boy, again to win a bet with some friends. The movie is a feel good story, filmed and first published in war times, yet still resonates today. Feuerzangenbowle is essentially mulled wine, with added orange, lemon, ginger, sugar, spices and of course rum. The real treat is, however, the “Zuckerhut” on top – a rum-soaked sugarloaf on a metal sponge on top of the bowl, set on fire, so the sugar caramelizes and drips into the punch below.

Watching the movie while drinking the punch is a great pastime – not on Silvester, though, when another timeless classic has to be watched. “Dinner for One” is the nightmare of my Chinese family who have to endure it with me every year, if they want it or not. This 1963 British TV sketch still forms the minds of many Germans when it comes to the UK: An aristocratic old lady celebrates her 90th birthday with her best friends, all of whom have sadly passed away in the years before. Her butler, himself an elderly gentleman, takes over their roles on the dinner table, getting more and more drunk in the process, asking for mercy on every step: “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”, to which she denies any relief by answering: “The same procedure as every year, James.” The sketch is an amazing example of slapstick comedy, perfect timing and outstanding acting – so much, that the German audience never minded the English language throughout.

(Video no longer available unfortunately 🙁 sorry!)

But we are not done yet!

There are two New Year customs that can not be forgotten in an article like this: Bleigießen – und Feuerwerk. Let’s start with the first: What translates to “lead pouring” is a rather risky way of predicting the future. A little piece of lead or tin is melted in in a spoon held over a small flame until it is liquid, then dropped quickly into a glass of cold water. The liquid metal ends up in strange shapes that are supposed to give a hint about the next year – whole books have been published to help understanding what which shape actually means.

Last but not least, the most outstanding New Year tradition, like in so many parts of the world, is the attempt to drive out evil spirits. Fire and noise are the tools of trade, ironically usually associated with exactly those evil spirits that are being targeted. Proper German firework is second to none around the globe, be it the official displays in major cities like Berlin, Hamburg, Munich or Cologne… or the massive fireworks shot into the air by German citizens everywhere in the country.

In rule-obsessed, neat Germany, banning fireworks on Silvester is as hopeless a task as introducing a speed limit on the Autobahn. Sadly, it’s not only evil spirits who suffer from the battlefield noise created this way, but also pets and other animals, not to speak of the many injuries caused by careless, often alcohol-fueled abuse of explosives.

Not to spoil the fun: If you like to party, celebrating New Year in Germany at least once in your lifetime should be on your bucket list. It is, in my humble opinion, better than Karneval.

Happy New Year – or in German: Frohes Neues Jahr!

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