By Marja

It was a bleak, gray November day in Germany many years ago.  I had started my postgraduate studies at a German university a few weeks before in October when the winter term had begun.  I was standing at a bus stop close to my home and was waiting for a bus impatiently.  Buses usually arrived at bus stops super punctually and reliably, but now my bus was significantly behind schedule, which made me nervous.  Finally, after a long time waiting, I saw it coming.

Since I was badly late for my lecture due to the delay of the public transportation, I quickly jumped out of the bus at the university campus and rushed to the lecture hall, running there as fast as I could.  When I got to the door of the building, I grasped its handle to get in, but the door was stuck and would not open.  I jerked the door handle fiercely until I realized that the door was locked.  How come?  I was perplexed.

While panting and sweating, I looked around for the first time and discovered that the campus yard was empty and deserted.  There was not a single student around although the place was normally full of people.  Nor did I see any bikes although the bike racks were usually bursting with them.  I stood alone on the campus!

Student late, Image by Stseptianpras from Pixabay

When I returned home, passing through the city center, I noticed how quiet the downtown was, just like on Sunday. I comprehended afterwards why the bus had arrived late in the morning. It was not delayed; it just operated on a Sunday schedule due to a bank holiday. The puzzling question was: which holiday?

I desperately tried to figure out why everything was closed on that particular day.  Was it the Day of German Unity? No! Was it All Saints’ Day? No! Was it Father’s Day? No! Clearly, it was not yet Christmas either. We were dealing with a public holiday I was unfamiliar with.  After my investigations, I learned that it was Day of Prayer and Repentance (Buß- und Bettag in German).

Question puzzled, Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Day of Prayer and Repentance (Germany)

The Day of Prayer and Repentance is the Wednesday that falls between November 16 and 22. Nowadays, it is no longer a statutory non-working holiday, except in the Free State of Saxony, but in the 1990s, it was a public holiday in many German states. As its name indicates, the idea is to pray and reflect quietly on life in order to find one’s way back to God. The word ‘repentance’ in this context means “return to God”. It denotes a readiness to move forward rather than regret. The biblical foundations of Day of Prayer and Repentance can be traced back to the story of Prophet Jonah. (Source: https://www.germanpod101.com/lesson/culture-class-holidays-in-germany-20-the-day-of-repentance-and-prayer/)

In mediaeval times, Catholic Christians practiced two types of repentance days: those scheduled on particular events of emergency, and those related to quarterly periods of fasting. After the Reformation, the Protestant congregations continued the same tradition. The first Day of Prayer and Repentance was celebrated in 1532 in the Holy Roman Empire in Strasbourg on the occasion of the Ottoman invasion at the eastern border of the Empire. At present, the celebration is primarily a Protestant worship event with the exception of Bavaria. Germany’s Evangelical-Lutheran Protestants mainly live in northern and eastern parts of the country.  (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bu%C3%9F-_und_Bettag).

Praying old hands, Image by Congerdesign from Pixabay

The Day of Prayer and Repentance is a silent, inward-looking, spiritual holiday which remains invisible on the streets because glamorous festivals or colorful processions would contradict its immanent nature. As its historic roots are linked with fasting, great banquets would not fit in for obvious reasons. Church services are held in most Protestant parishes on Day of Repentance and Prayer.  Only active church-goers and religious people focus on it at present.

Christian believers use the day to think about the acts of injustice they have inflicted on other people and aim to behave better in the future. They work on recognizing their sins, repenting them and taking responsibility for guilt. They tell God about their mistakes in prayer and ask Him for forgiveness as well as help in becoming a better person.  Above all, prayers contemplate carefully how they could avoid bad deeds in the future and, instead, choose a righteous path in life. Through prayer and introspection, they hope to rediscover their Christian faith. Some believers do this for themselves at home; some pray together with others in church services. (Source: https://www.religionen-entdecken.de/lexikon/b/buss-und-bettag)

When on outsider, like myself, translates the essence of Day of Prayer and Repentance into modern, secular terminology, the following intuitive associations pop up, as defined in keywords: retreat, self-reflection, evaluation, self-improvement, quietening down, humbling oneself, settling & questioning, and honing in on what really matters.  Moreover, it might have parallels with mediation and philosophizing. Anyway, it is not about external action but inner contemplation. Personally, I would connect it with candle light and Bach cantatas, i.e. classic church music.  [Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) was a German composer and musician of the late Baroque period.]

Candles, Image by Richard Revel from Pixabay

Carnival Starts on 11/11 at 11:11 (Germany) The Germans say: “Am elften elften um elf Uhr elf.”

Nothing could be further away from the Protestant spirit of Repentance Day than the rollicking kick-off of Germany’s jolly carnival season in the West German Rhineland. Many people do not know that each new carnival season – the time of fools or the fifth season – is declared open as early as November. Its zero hour is on November 11 at 11 minutes past 11 am. In Cologne, for instance, the “fools” who are dressed up in humorous fancy dresses gather on squares and streets of the Old Town to sing, dance and sway to the music as a huge collective group.

Carnivals are primarily celebrated in Germany’s Roman Catholic regions in the west and the south.  The Rhineland and Swabia are particularly famous for their magnificent, though different, carnival traditions. Carnival is a vivid time of festivity and merry-making – a time to break the rules, poke fun at decision-makers and turn power relations upside down. Fun, happiness, laughter and harmless craziness constitute its cornerstones.  (Source: http://people.ucls.uchicago.edu/~mzemil/4thgerman/Fasching_intro_english.pdf)

Fasching in Schwaben, Image by Ilona F. from Pixabay

The Fascination of Unfolding a Strange Celebration

While I did not fully understand the meaning of the Day of Prayer and Repentance when I first heard about it, its character sounded grim and gloomy to me. If you combine guilt and remorse with miserable November weather, the outcome will appear dreary, conforming to the Prussian stereotype. In my ignorant mind, I compared this depressing image with American Thanksgiving.  On Thanksgiving Day, happy families celebrate the bountiful harvest and other blessings of the year in sunny California. The latter stems from joyful expression of gratitude, the former from contrition and fasting. However, as the description above points out, the Day of Prayer and Repentance may not be as gloomy as I had suspected.

In order to avoid misinterpretations and develop a deeper understanding of foreign cultures, it is useful to scrutinize their holidays. If one takes a closer look beyond the façade, one will be able to connect dishes, decorations and rituals – i.e. symbols – with meaningful, tangible traditions and historic narratives. Less known country-specific or regional holidays, such as the Day of Prayer and Repentance, are particularly revealing from that point of view. Generally taken, public holidays offer a great window of opportunity to learn about other nations and their tacit values.

Foggy landscape, Image by Stux from Pixabay