“I can´t get into the internet! I can´t do my post.” When Francesca phoned yesterday, she was desperate. Disaster started when she agreed to switch to a faster DSL-line with Deutsche Telekom. For six weeks, nothing happened, till Wednesday 31st. At 11:30 a.m. the technical service from Telekom called. “We switch you to the new line now”, they said. “Please wait till the new year”, Francesca begged. But it was too late. They switched, and the DSL-line instantly went dead. Since then Francesca tries to lure a Telekom serviceman to come to her house. To no avail. “Zwischen den Jahren” (between the old and the new year), Germany is a country on stand-by.
“The biggest surprise in this is that anybody worked on Wednesday 31st at all”, I said. “Aber Ausnahmen bestätigen die Regeln–exceptions prove that a rule is true”. As a rule, “Zwischen den Jahren”, work is down to a minimum. In the offices, one man or woman “hält die Stellung” (keeps the department going). Just in case the phone rings. Which it never does. So, time in the office is spent pleasantly with winnowing files on desk and desktop. At home, shelves are reorganized, kitchens restructured, closets cleaned from old junk. Seen from the perspective of the new year, what seemed of utter importance in 2008 becomes disposable in 2009, and is consequently disposed of.
During the quiet days”Zwischen den Jahren”, the country recharges. Normally, this time ends on January 1st and is only interrupted by Silvester, New Years eve.
On this day, December 31st, shops and offices close at 12 o´clock so everybody can get ready for the New Year celebrations. While Christmas is the time for family, Silvester is the time to go out. Private parties, public parties, special events in cinema, opera, restaurants, hotels … nobody stays at home on Silvester. Unless to watch “Dinner for one” on TV. This slapstick comedy about an English lady and her Butler has been broadcasted on Silvester for 45 years by now and never lost its popularity. Its catch phrase ” Same procedure as last year?– Same procedure as every year” has become a typical German saying. Don´t be suprised if a German starts to laugh, seemingly out of the blue, when somebody says “Same procedure as …”. Those few words start a movie in every Germans head, of a butler serving the role of four men at his ladies 90th birthday, stumbling drunkenly over a stuffed tiger.
At midnight, church bells start to ring. Everybody goes outside to light the fireworks. Family, friends and neighbours hug and kiss. “Man prostet sich zu”–glasses full of Sekt, a German champagne, are joined. With “Frohes neues Jahr” best wishes for the new year are exchanged. Soon after, because of the cold, everybody goes back into the house.
The next morning, January 1st, is a public holiday. In the south of Germany, we eat a Neujahrs-Brezel for breakfast. This pretzel can be made from sweet dough (my tradition) or bread dough (my spouse´s tradition), but it is always huge and finely decorated. Its special form symbolizes the the circle of life, when every ending becomes a beginning.
Usually, “Zwischen den Jahren” ends on January 2nd. This year, though, because January 2nd falls on a Friday and nobody bothers to start work on a Friday, it lasts till January the 5th, in southern Germany even till 7th because of “Heilige Drei Könige”, a public holiday in those states of Germany that used to be catholic. On this day, children called ´Sternsinger` go from house to house, sing and collect money for poor children around the world. As a thank you and a benediction, they write in white chalk over your entrance door: “20 C+M+B 09”. The initals stand for Casper, Melchior and Balthasar, the name of the three wise men, and as well as for “Christus mansionem benedicat”, Latin for “That Christ shall benedict this house”.
After Dreikönig, the row of public holidays end. Life goes back to normal. Which, unfortunately, doesn´t automatically mean that the serviceman from Telekom will stand in Francesca`s door. Nowadays, the old German saying “Wenn es dem Esel zu wohl wird, geht er aufs Eis–when the ass feels too comfortable, he tries the thickness of the ice” changes to “When you have nothing else to worry about, change you telecommunication system”.
But this is another story.