German Family Structure and Traditions

Family drinking red wine and eating

Many Americans have German ties, and this European culture has influenced several aspects of American life. In fact, some 46 million Americans have ancestors from Deutschland who started settlements in California, Texas, Pennsylvania and many states in the Midwest. Popular baseball snacks: hot dogs, pretzels and beer, came from the German culture, and there are many other German traditions that Americans have adopted as their own.

Christian Holidays

Christmas and Easter are the most famous Christian holidays, and many common traditions and rituals that are synonymous with these celebrations came from Germany.

German Christmas Traditions

The following are German traditions for the holidays:

  • Advent calendars: The popular calendars that count down the days until Christmas originated in Germany. The paper calendars that feature treats, such as chocolate candies behind the small doors were first printed in Germany in 1908.
  • Christmas trees: In Germany, the Christmas tree isn't decorated until Christmas Eve. This Christmas tradition originated in Germany as part of the Yule celebrations. Traditional tree decorations included candy, apples, nuts, angels, candles, cookies and tinsel.
  • Gingerbread houses: Gingerbread makers established their own trade guild in Nuremberg in 1643, and this famous Christmas treat made its first holiday appearance in 1893. Gingerbread houses became part of German Christmas traditions after one was featured in the famous Grimm Brothers' story of Hansel and Gretel. German families create gingerbread houses, complete with frosting and gumdrops, every December.
  • Christmas carols: Some of the most popular Christmas carols sung every year have German roots. For example, "O Christmas Tree" (otherwise known as "O Tannenbaum") dates back about 500 years.
German Christmas cookie ornaments

German Easter Traditions

These Easter traditions also have German roots:

  • Easter comes from a pagan holiday that coincided with the vernal equinox in the spring. The original celebration occurred in Germany around March 21 each year, and it was to honor Ostara, the pagan goddess of spring, or Eostre. That's where "Easter" got its name.
  • The Easter bunny also has pagan roots. According to German legend, Ostara saved a frozen bird by turning it into a rabbit. This special rabbit could lay eggs, because it once was a bird, hence the Easter bunny. This popular Easter animal symbol is first mentioned in 16th-century German writings, and candy bunnies and eggs were first introduced in the 1800s.

All Saints Day

Similar to an American Halloween, All Saints Day on November 1st is when Germans go to visit their loved ones. The giving of striezel to godchildren is also customary.

Day of German Unity

Similar to America's Fourth of July, the Day of German Unity is on October 3rd and celebrates the reunification of Germany in 1990. In Berlin, it is celebrated as a three-day festival.

Fireworks over Hamburg, Germany

Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest is one of the most popular German traditions worldwide. This beer-drinking holiday began in October of 1810 at the Bavarian wedding of Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The royal couple broke the rules by inviting commoners to the wedding party, which consisted of five days of eating, drinking and celebrating.

It evolved over the years and is now a 16-day festival held each year in Munich. Oktoberfest features a wide variety of German beers and sausages, with more than six million visitors in attendance. If you can't make it to the Motherland, you can find a stateside Oktoberfest in many major U.S. cities.

Wedding Traditions

Traditional German weddings last for several days.

  • They start with a civil ceremony (Standesbeamte) attended by close friends and family members.
  • The next day features an evening party for all friends and acquaintances (Polterabend). At these large parties, guests break old dishes and the newlyweds sweep them up together. This tradition is meant to symbolize that nothing will break in their house or relationship.
  • On the third day, the religious wedding ceremony is held at a church, and it is followed by the official wedding reception. When the couple leaves the church, they throw coins to the children in attendance.

Birthday Traditions

Getting older is a celebrated tradition in several cultures, but Germans have their own unique way of commemorating birthdays.

  • While Americans might wish someone a happy early birthday, this is considered bad luck in Germany.
  • Bringing snacks for co-workers or classmates is expected, along with organizing and paying for your own birthday party.
  • Traditionally in Germany, if you are single and turning 30, you are expected to broadcast this fact by doing chores such as sweeping a staircase (for men) and cleaning doorknobs (for women) in public. The idea is to advertise your housekeeping skills to other single potential partners.

Vacation Traditions

Germans love to travel. Therefore, it shouldn't come as a complete shock that when a holiday falls on a Thursday, then they will have what is called a "bridge day" or Brückentag. These are days that they use to plan long vacations or holidays. This is a really good thing since Germans spend more on foreign travel than most other countries.

Eating bratwurst at German Christmas market

Traditional German Foods

Many Germans celebrate with traditional German dishes and foods.

  • German potato salad is served warm in Southern Germany and features bacon, sugar and white wine vinegar. In Northern Germany, it is served cold and boasts a creamy base of mayonnaise.
  • Popular German sausages include bratwurst, currywurst, bockwurst and leberwurst.
  • Sauerkraut, a pickled cabbage, is a typical side dish at the dinner table.
  • Wienerschnitzel, a thin, fried veal filet, is often a featured main course.
  • Traditional German desserts include black forest cake, stollen (a sweet yeast bread filled with nuts and fruit), and marzipan, a popular Christmas delicacy made from ground almonds and sugar.

All in the Family

The German family structure is the definition of a nuclear family. In most homes, you will find a mother, father and child. Most German households contain only one generation, and in fact, the number of families with more than one generation living together has been declining. If the house is multigenerational, it is typically two-generation. However, most grandparents and other extended family live in a separate house. Additionally, in areas like Berlin, some people are choosing to live alone.

Gender Roles

In the past, the male was seen as the head of the household in a German family, but this family hierarchy has changed, and women are enjoying equal opportunities in the home. While women haven't completely bridged the gap yet, in many households both the father and mother work. Additionally, shared decision-making is common. However, based on research by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research, women are more likely than men to stay home with a child.

Celebrating a Birth

Having a celebration before a baby is actually born in Germany is considered bad luck. While German people might have a gathering after the birth, it is more about celebrating family than getting gifts.

While it is thought that German baby names must be chosen from an approved government list, the German naming laws aren't quite that restrictive. Legally, for the most part, parents can give their child any name, unless it can affect the welfare of the child. However, the registrars who have to register the name and gender of the child are instructed to enforce that male babies must have only male names and female babies only female names. The instructions also state that baby first names cannot be offensive, nor can they be the same as the family's surname.

Wedding Trees

When baby girls are born in Germany, several trees are planted. When the girl grows up and gets engaged, they sell the trees and use the money for her dowry.

Modern Traditions

If you want to honor your German heritage, incorporate some of these traditions into your next holiday. You can also celebrate your ancestry by simply enjoying a high-quality German beer on any given day. Be sure to use the German toast "Prost!" when you lift your glass!

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German Family Structure and Traditions