Ask Germans to name the bleakest month of the year, and you will probably end up with a unanimous vote for … November. It’s as if the year, once a balloon, had lost all its air and remains but a floppy rubber bladder that stretches, but holds nothing. November – an accumulation of fog, drizzle, rain, cold weather, late dawns, and early dusks.
It doesn’t help that it starts with All Hallows’, a quite solemn church holiday, and that it pretty much ends with a Sunday commemorating the dead. The Sunday before, Germany has its Memorial Day with church and secular gatherings in most of its cemeteries. As a rookie journalist, I had to cover a bunch of those for our local newspaper. TV broadcasts about the German Memorial Day, or Volkstrauertag (pronounce: fohlx-trower-tuhk, literally: people’s grieving day), usually with politicians laying wreaths at central monuments. We remember all the fallen German military, no matter what cause they fought for, but because they died before their time and left behind family. We don’t have a Veterans’ Day – our fairly recent history makes us tiptoe around any current military issues.
So, is November in Germany such a dreary affair? Actually, our stores will be decorated for Christmas same as over here. You would even recognize lots of the music on their continuous loops. Of course, we lack such a wonderful family fest (or should I say feast?) such as American Thanksgiving. We do have ours, a church Sunday, right after the September harvests – not commemorating any specific event, but another harvest that could be reaped. No turkey meals with specific sides, no housewives laboring to exhaustion over creating and dishing up fancy dish after dish, while the rest of the family enjoys Thanksgiving football. (And still, isn’t everybody looking forward to this opening to the annual Christmas season, year after year, again and again?!)
While we are thanking and honoring our veterans for all their sacrifices for the nation over here on November 11, Germany actually has two totally different events happening on the same date. The first is the beginning of the so-called fifth season. So, if you have to make a business call (or any call at all) to the German Rhineland on November 11 – better defer it to the day after. Carnival season opens, for whatever reason, on 11/11 at 11:11 am with parades, street celebrations, costumes, and confetti. All offices are closed, though it is no bank holiday, and if you live in the Rhineland, you better go along with it.
For German Catholics, November 11 is also observed as St. Martin’s Day. There are Martin’s geese for dinner. And children all over the country (not just Catholic ones) can’t wait till dusk when people meet at local churches, kindergartens, or schools to go for a lantern walk. We used to craft our own lanterns, and our generation’s children are crafting them again. I don’t know whether the lantern walkers prefer LEDs these days, as they are considered safer. When I was a child, we had real candles in those lanterns, and some spare ones in our pockets. I will never forget the flickering of a match in the cold November evening air, the lighting of the wick, the first whiff of melting wax, or the wavering of the flame that shone through the decorated paper lanterns. As lantern after lantern was lit, we started singing lantern songs, and the millipede of a St. Martin’s procession wove through as many neighborhood streets as possible.
November is only as bleak as you make it yourself, I think. It’s a month that gives us a break from a busy summer. It has gotten families with school children used to a new school year routine. We can lean back and look across the year and still look forward to some more weeks to come. All leisurely. We should embrace the quiet this darker and less colorful month holds for us and take the time to reflect about ourselves, instead of what needs to be done next…
Okay, I’m not true to my own recommendation here. Because I’m planning ahead already. I’m looking forward to celebrate Thanksgiving with my husband at our cozy home. With all the fancy flounces and frills. Adieux, Tristesse!