Archive for the ‘German Traditions’ Category

A short history

KalenderlysThe first recorded home-made advent calendar dates back to 1851 and originated in the Lutheran part of continental European society. Initially they were intended as an aid for counting down towards Christmas. The way of counting down took various shapes: some people hung up 24 pictures, others added each day a straw to the manger, while in Denmark for example they used candles to help them to count down to the special day.

Advent time

Geheimnis_der_Weihnacht3.tiffAdvent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day Eve and – depending on how the weekdays fall – can vary from the 27th of November to the 3rd of December. Over the centuries it became custom that the Advent calendars start on the first of December, preferring the civil over the ecclesiastical calendar. As the ecclesiastical background becomes more and more a thing of the past, the form and content of the calendars reflect the change as well.

Modern Advent

In the 50’s, modern manufacturing techniques turned it into an easily available commodity and enabled this German tradition to travel all over the world. Not only depicted those calendars homely landscape scenes, but each window also contained a piece of chocolate. Nowadays traditionally inspired calendars still feature biblical images, while modern ones cater to all manners of taste and interests. The front covers often are licensed images from popular children movies and toy manufacturers (Barbie and Lego for example).

Not only for children

1280px-Adventkalender_andreaWhile the chocolate treats and favourite movie characters aim at pleasing the children, more and more adults succumb to the idea and demand more sophisticated versions for themselves. The mass market responded to that by supplying the same type of calendars just with covers more appealing to an adult market, with images of all sorts of sports, hobbies and animals gracing the covers. But there’s also a niche market which caters to creative individuals by offering them blank canvases to fill: wooden frames with little drawers to be filled with truffles and other goodies, or tiny jute bags to be hung up over the fireplace or in the window and also filled individually.

Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt – “a light shining bright”

For this second Advent Sunday we hope you’re getting into the spirit, have started your baking and look forward to the festive season with your loved ones, near or far. Whether you celebrate Christmas by going to midnight Mass or treasuring a fun filled time at the beach, make it a memorable and enjoyable time.

Wishing everyone a happy, merry and blessed Christmas and look forward to seeing you all in the New Year.

Recommendation for a New Year’s resolution: visit Germany! It’s the only way to understand Germans going on and on about the Christmas markets, Lebkuchen and snow!

We’d be happy to help you make it come true,

best wishes, your Sidetracks team.


Author: Petra Alsbach-Stevens



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Seasonal celebrations in Germany

As we gear up our barbecues and dig out the hats and shorts in preparation of the coming summer, Germany and the rest of Europe get ready for winter. Mind you sitting in my office listening to the rain beating against the windows of our South Wairarapa home you wouldn’t think summer is coming. Anyway, throughout Europe the finishing of the harvest and preparation for winter has been the reason for a range of festivities.

Martinmas aka St. Martin’s dayEl_Greco_-_San_Martín_y_el_mendigo

While Halloween has achieved international fame since its celtic harvest festival beginnings, St. Martin’s day remains a strictly European tradition. The day celebrates in various ways the life of the Saint Martin of Tours. The celebrations on this day cover two aspects of early social life: Thanksgiving for the harvest and the beginning of a fasting period in preparation for Christmas. Even though most of the celebrations have some things in common – food and parades – each country has their way of making them their own unique celebrations. Today I want to focus on the German way of celebrating it.

St. Martin in Germany

St._Martin_in_Duisburg-MündelheimIn modern Germany this is a celebration mainly for the kids, even though I’m sure the adults enjoy it as well. Rural and urban celebrations differ a bit, but they all have a procession in common. Generally starting at the parish church and going to the city or township centre, a procession led by St. Martin is the beginning of the evenings’ festivities. In rural communities St. Martin might even be on horseback, if he’s up to it. During the procession traditional church and folk songs are sung, which sounds impressive if the church choir is present. The children carry lanterns which used to have been made at school and used to depict religious images and scenes. Nowadays lanterns can be bought and come in all sorts of designs. At the end there is a bonfire, size of course depending on the locality.

I remember in my rural home village that the bonfire would be set in the middle of a bare paddock and have the local fire brigade standing by! Afterwards we would be led back to the community hall, get our Weckmann and start doing our rounds of the houses, singing the songs from the parade for lollies and other sweets. Kind of like the trick-or-treating at Halloween, except no repercussions for Scrooges.

Celebrate to beat the winter bluesUlmer_Weihnachtsmarkt_2008-2

This day and all the other activities throughout November and December make it easier to come to terms with the grey, dark and cold climate one has to endure. Every celebration has activities in preparation for it, lantern making, cookie baking, Christmas tree decoration making and then finally in the last four weeks before Christmas visiting family and getting presents ready. The Christmas markets throughout Germany offer a range of traditional crafts and foods to be enjoyed by the adults and the children hover with greedy anticipation over their Advent calendars.

Europe in New Zealand

With a lot of expat Germans in New Zealand, some of these traditions have made it down under: check your local papers for advertisements by the local German play- and learning group for these activities: St. Martins is usually on the 10.11. and any processions should happen then. Guests are normally very welcome and you get to try traditional German baking!

If you’d like to know more please contact us and we’ll do our best to help.

Author: Petra Alsbach-Stevens

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Bikes everywhere!

As cities around New Zealand are working hard to create safer cycle ways to encourage a more frequent use of bikes, a national project has also recently been completed: a cycle road network along which to safely discover the beauty of New Zealand’s country-, mountain- and beach side. At Sidetracks we have now added a cycle tour around the South Island to accommodate our push bike addicts from overseas and thought that pedal friends here in New Zealand might also be interested in finding out what cycling in Germany is like.

bike and basketEuropean bike culture

Central Europe has a long-standing tradition of using your push bike on a daily basis. I can vividly remember carefully placing my Sprudelkasten (deposit refund crate, like Tui used to do it) into the back basket and shouldering my back pack while having a shopping bag hanging off each handle bar to do my weekly shop! Not to mention putting on the wet weather gear to get ready for my ride to work. One winter it was so cold that I had small icicles hanging from my beaver hat!paar auf rad (2)

Bike first

And even though a car is the preferred option in bad weather, common practice is using the bike first. And it is easy: for example a dedicated cycle path running parallel, but separate, to the railway line through allotments and along private gardens. There is nothing quite like getting the body pumped full of fresh air and energy by a leisurely trip. Occasionally one would have to cross a road, but not until one is in the centre of town. And in most town centres there are dedicated cycle lanes to guide one safely through traffic. fahrrad garageOnce at your destination it used to be a worry where and how to park your trusty Pedalo but clever business people and communities have established parking houses, in some cases even with service stations with dedicated bike mechanics! No more worrying if at the end of a hard day at work you will find your bike in its old parking spot. And that is just the daily side of it.

Leisure time

In Germany, just as in New Zealand, you will find the absolute cycle enthusiasts, who consider spending long hours in the saddle a perfect way to spend a weekend. But, within this group you will find a bigger range of fitness levels: from leisurely ambling along natural pathways or artificial walkways to competitive racing over mountains. There’s even a website called QuaelDich (“torture yourself”) for those who want to really challenge themselves. But for the more relaxed type each community has notice boards, online nowadays, where you can find easy and picturesque tours safely taking you through country and city alike.girl-14301_640

Saddle up with Sidetracks

Inspired by our recent addition for our New Zealand program we’re looking forward to bringing Germany on Wheels to our friends from down under. Keep your eyes peeled for more updates or contact us directly!

Author: Petra Alsbach-Stevens

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Germany’s traditional wines under threat

On our Rhine and Romans tour  you have a chance to see some of Germany’s oldest wine growing areas located on some of the world’s steepest slopes. These vineyards are in danger of being abandoned due to the hard manual labour and their maintenance costs. While one hectare on flat ground requires around 180 hours of labour, the equivalent slope hectare requires up to 1500 hours AND abseiling knowledge. Since 1970 the area of commercially used vineyards on “true” slopes (> 60% incline) has decreased from 12,000 hectares down to less than 8,000 hectares. The costs will be even harder to justify once the European Union stops the restrictions on the size of wine growing areas for each country. Each country will be able to increase its area by one percent per year, which will create more competition for the already pricey specialty wines.

Romantic views succumb to wilderness

But this is not just a problem for the wine growing industry, the tourism industry would suffer heavily as well. As readers of our tour blogs might remember, the Moselle and Rhine region are particularly picturesque and on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The description mentions “…the vineyard terraces that define this prosperous and picturesque stretch of the Rhine valley and encompass all the key views that influenced writers and artists.”

Traditional wine makers given a helping hand with modern technology

So, for the past ten years a dedicated team of researchers and technicians of the Geisenheim University have been working on a solution: “Geisi”. Looking like a cross between Fred Flintstone’s family car and NASA’s Mars rover the prototype has been making its way around some of the steeper slopes (>80%) and trying it’s “hands” at viticulture. Even though its current size is not quite right yet for the old fashioned narrow rows of the vineyards, the team is confident that the next model will be a bit skinnier and still be able to do all the necessary jobs of pruning and harvesting.Geisi03_1023

Market potential

At a recent trade show in Stuttgart they could have sold at least 10 models already, which is encouraging for the developers.  But, they’re not just working on a mechanical help for these vineyards, they are also developing new growing strategies, which would reduce the necessary labour and still produce good to excellent quality wines. One of these strategies comes from Australia and has already produced interesting results: smaller grapes, but less loss from mould damage. And the bottled wine, a tangy dry Riesling “Kauber Rauschely”, will be evaluated by the concerned and interested vineyard owners. Nothing proves a point like a perfect product.

On that note, Prost!


Author: Petra Alsbach-Stevens


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800px-Das_kleine_Museum_Eckkneipe_Grotestraße_10_Hannover_Ecke_Ahlemer_StraßeThe German word ‘Kneipe’ has its origin in the 18th century term for a place where people had to squeeze together for drink and food. ‘Kneipschenke’ denotes the place, and “kneipen” is the verb for squeezing in! So be aware, a lot of Eckkneipen – corner pubs – will be tiny!

The practice of drinking, and drinking heavily, was tolerated, as long as it was conducted within the carefully structured cultural norms and didn’t interfere with a man’s responsibilities for his household. If it got too much for him to work or he started abusing the wife, she could deploy public powers to impose and enforce limits! As the cities and the neighbourhoods have grown since the 18th century, this aspect has unfortunately disappeared. But quite often you will still find the regular patrons of a Kneipe to be protective of its reputation and curb any antisocial behaviour!

Local brews

While some pubs are locked to one brewing company, others can offer the local brews. Most street signs indicate which beers are served, on tap of course. Ask your tour guide while travelling through Germany with us and they will advise you if a pub serves the local brew. So, while you’re here, get down to the Eckkneipe, enjoy a cool draft and get to know some of the locals!Sven Lambert

For our first time visitors who might like to find out more about beer and its history, check out our other blog entries here, here and here!


Author: Petra Alsbach-Stevens

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Kneipen – Taverns – local watering holes

Mendel_I_088_vThe tradition of going to your local watering hole after a hard day’s work goes back a long way. In the Middle Ages beer was brewed in monasteries and convents and served to traveling pilgrims. As this practice evolved into serving the beer to the local peasants as well, taverns and inns sprang up all over the countryside. In the olden days taverns served only beer and food, while lodgings, food and rather wine were provided in inns. Even though nowadays these differences have disappeared, the local watering hole is still a place for the members of a neighbourhood to get together and discuss all sorts of local gossip and politics!

Pillars of Society

800px-Jan_Steen_-_Revelry_at_an_Inn_-_WGA21761The different cultures on the European Continent and elsewhere had developed different standards of acceptable drinking behaviour. While some places became synonymous with illicit trade, gang meetings and all sorts of rough dealings, others developed a reputation for orderly citizen meetings, political activities like voting and promoting social life within a community.

If you have just joined us and would like to read more about the history of beer just follow this link and indulge!

Author: Petra Alsbach-Stevens

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Liquid Gold

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor a considerable amount of time beer brewing remained a homemaker’s activity, performed by the women of the household. Even though the monks in the monasteries had perfected the processes, it was up to the women of a household to have a steady supply available at home.  But very quickly those in power realised there was money to be made with this popular drink and started shifting the process out of the home into commercial production facilities.

By the 14th and 15th centuries it had become an artisan product, with monasteries and pubs making their own special brews. Historische_BierkruegeOne of these monasteries, the benedictine Weihenstephan Abbey, puts claim to being the oldest and still operating monastery turned brewery in the world: a document regarding the tithing of hops dating 768 AD indicates the use of hops for beer brewing by the local monastery. In 1040 the monastery was official licensed to brew beer by the neighbouring city of Freising, which makes it the official date.


During the industrial revolution in the 18th century the introduction of the thermometer and the invention of the hydrometer enabled the makers of beer to increase the efficiency and reliability of the process. But even then there was a lot of improvement, as the production of the malt left a very smoky taste in the beers, which was universally thought to be unpalatable. Except by the extremely desperate or the locals! The invention of the drum roaster in 1817 and the discovery of yeasts by Louis Pasteur in 1857  finally paved the way for thousands of litres of liquid gold to be produced and sent out into the world.

800px-Fermentadores-Pilsen-01Local over Global?

Despite the advances in technology and transportation, locally made beers still make up for the majority of beer sold in the local pubs. The pubs moved from making their own brews to being tied to the local brewery, selling only their range of beers. Your trips around Germany will give you a chance to compare them and find out whether it’s true that northern beers tend to be drier and hoppier, while maltier, sweeter beers are found in the south. That leaves midrange beers in the middle.

And how and where do the Germans take their favourite drink? Stay tuned to find out about the German way to imbibe!

Author: Petra Alsbach-Stevens

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