Thursday, May 30th is Christi Himmelfahrt (Ascension of Jesus) and a national holiday in Germany. What would be a “bank holiday” in England, demonstrating the historical power of banks and the financial industry in the UK, is a “Christian holiday” in Germany. The free day is not moved to the following Monday to create a longer holiday, but happens on the exact date, sometimes creating what Germans refer to as “Brückentage” – bridge days between the holiday and the weekend. Bridge days are a favourite way of optimizing the free time in a year for vacation trips.
This, however, isn’t the main topic of today’s blog. Ascension day is an interesting example of how influential Christian traditions are in Germany, and how this influence changes in modern times. Another tradition is slowly taking over the former Christian meaning of the day: Vatertag (the “Father’s Day”), or in some parts of Germany simply the “Herrentag” (roughly translating to Gentlemen’s Day).
Unlike Mother’s Day, this special occasion is less about fatherhood and the celebration of the bond between kids and their father. Instead, German Vatertag tends to be a slightly rowdy celebration featuring grill parties, hiking trips or similar events, usually accompanied by lots of alcohol. Where I come from it’s common to build some kind of raft out of rubbish to go down the small river that connects most villages in the area. Not on your own, of course, but with friends, meeting plenty of other people on the trip. (Legend has it that some people simply use a rubber boat. This is supposed to be a bit lazy, though.) In other regions the vehicle of choice is a handcart.
What appears to be a fun event often turns into horrible headaches on the next day. Sadly, throughout Germany, the rate of physical altercations also goes up on this day, proving that alcohol and men often don’t go well together.
Looking at the evolution of the Ascension of Jesus into Father’s Day is a great example for how interwoven German life still is with religious traditions and how these change over the years.
Germany has a rich Christian tradition, and a history to match it. For nearly a thousand years Germany was known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and its leaders were named by the church. Germany is also the country of reformation, where Martin Luther started the protestant church, initiating the many Christian organisations we see around the world today. Despite the worries of some about losing their identity in a globalized world (or even facing “Islamisation”), Germany still is a very Christian country.
23.5 Million Germans belong to the Roman Catholic church, which accounts to 28.2 % of the population. 21.5 Million are protestants, which still means 26.1 %. Together the Christian communities in Germany account for 56 % of the population. In stark contrast to the fears of some in the far right, Islam is not the reason for this. Only 5.4 % of the German population are Muslims, the strongest group of all faiths is those with no faith at all: 37 % of Germans are not declaring membership to any religion.
Searching for reasons for this high percentage, one element might be the Church Tax, in force since the 19th century and right now accounting for 9 % of income for church members. Saving on this has surely supported the drift of many low-committed Christians to move out of the two major church organisations.
Looking at these numbers also shows a chasm within Germany: While the five East German states, for 40 years under socialist rule, feature up to 84 % of people without religion, in West German states like Bavaria or the Saarland area these numbers are at only 25 %. These intriguing differences are another example for the rich and complex German history and how it affected everyday life in so many ways.
The Rhineland, where I come from, is very catholic, with the Archdiocese of Cologne being the wealthiest of all Roman Catholic archdioceses in Europe. During medieval times, the bishop of Cologne was one of the most influential noblemen in the Holy Roman Empire, yet Cologne itself turned into a free city and later also a Hansa city, struggling free of the rule of the church in 1288. After the French revolutionary wars of the 18th century, huge parts of West Germany became French, and during the shakeup of the German Empire and the revolutions of the 19th century, most of the German states were secularized, yet still leaving the Church as the owner of vast amounts of land. Till today, many a home owner pays ground rent to the church.
The actual wealth of the two big German churches is hard to guess, since even their own officials have no idea. They are not required to keep proper inventory, as they are tax-exempt. Estimations suggest that the catholic and evangelical churches own about 435 billion Euro among them. This triggers controversy, because the churches are also huge beneficiaries of state benefits – from grants to keep up their historical buildings to church-owned hospitals, care homes, schools, universities, charitable foundations, social work organisations and similar ventures. Most of these work as profit centres with an own budget and are hardly ever financed by the churches, but by the German states or federal government.
At the same time, catholic as well as evangelical churches rule with a strict hand over philosophy and staff in confessional organisations. Being a member of a church is essential to work in these organisations, and disobeying the rules of the church can be a reason to be fired. Divorce or homosexual relationships are among the things that can lead to problems for teachers, social workers, doctors or nurses working in confessional institutions.
These rules, however, are likely to soften. We live in interesting times with massive changes, and religion is part of these for sure.