I know I have written about Veterans Day a few years ago, already. November 11, each and every year, centers on a commemorative two minutes of silence at 2:11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time – which turns it into 11:11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. And both times and dates have entirely different meanings for a German-American like me. So, bear with me, please. I am proudly celebrating Veteran’s Day with my husband, but I am also looking back of half a lifetime of German traditions coming with this date.
First of all, there is no Veterans Day in Germany. The date of Armistice Day after WW I may be still known to some. But with another World War linked to the first and all the shameful horror committed in between, nothing has been left in the German common conscience to celebrate participants in the furthering of a dictatorship’s conquest politics. After 1945, the German military was disbanded. The Bundeswehr (Federal Armed Forces) was founded on November 12, 1955 as a defensive institution of the Federal Republic in the West; the German Democratic Republic in the East followed suit, creating the Nationale Volksarmee (National People’s Army) on March 1, 1956. If you are interested in either background story, Wikipedia has some interesting facts packed in a nutshell. There are no national bank holidays in behalf of either or in behalf of living veterans. But one November Sunday is set aside to commemorate war victims – military as well as civilian.
For Germans, November 11 carries much more import as to religious matters. It is St. Martin’s Day, a day that traditionally marked the end of the fall’s wheat sowing and the beginning of butchering cattle and fowl. To this day, you will find goose roast on German restaurants’ menus, and quite a few families over there still celebrate the high winter holidays with an entire roasted goose. Also, St. Martin’s Day is an occasion long anticipated by children. They usually congregate at kindergartens or churches with lanterns and then walk the neighborhood as dusk is falling, singing lantern and St. Martin’s songs. When I was a child, these paper lanterns were often homemade and always contained a live candle. I’ll never forget the smell of the lit match and that of warm wax while we were creating what must have looked like a swarm of little fire flies. Get an impression of what it was like:
November, 11 is also the opening of the so-called 5th season in Germany – carnival. At 11:11 a.m., the very first parades march through the cities of the Rhineland, and there will be banquets and shows until the very ending of that period with Shrove Monday and the equivalent of Mardi Gras. Why the time and date? First of all – agricultural tasks are finished for the year, and all the meat that has been raised will now be available for feasting. Lent, which starts after Mardi Gras, coincided with empty cellars and pantries in the olden days. So, the Catholic church simply permitted people time to relax, celebrate, and – at times – run riot behind masks. To this day, the Protestant regions in Germany don’t make much of carnival.
Another reason for the number “11” as being of such importance during carnival is the implication that masking as somebody else is a great leveler between the classes. Entry: the French Revolution with its slogan, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. Scramble that up, and you get “ELF”, the German word for the number eleven.
So, what does November, 11 mean to ME? I have never been much one for carnival (yes, I’m from the other religious fraction in Germany). But I have to admit that I am pondering of making a goose roast one day again. I’m honoring Veterans Day as well as I am grieving for all the lives sacrificed in World War I for ambitions that served nobody, at all. And, to be honest – a bank holiday is always something to celebrate.