Expat Corner

A New Year’s Eve Kit for the Expat in Germany

New Year’s Eve in Germany is celebrated much like it is in the States: parties, all-inclusive events, formal galas, board games with family, champagne, etc.  But while the main elements are the same, you might not be aware of some of the smaller details that are rather unique to Germany.

So, here are four things to add to your New Year’s Eve celebrations this year to ensure that you ring in the new year like a German.

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#1. Bleigießen

This tradition is as fun as it is dangerous.

Bleigießen (“lead pouring”) refers to the practice of reading your fortune for the new year in melted lead.  This goes all the way back to the Romans, and it’s still celebrated today in a few other countries besides Germany (notably Austria, Switzerland, and the Nordic countries).

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Bleigießen on an old postcard.  Photo Credit: ak-ansichtskarten.de

You start by holding a spoonful of lead over a candle.  Once the lead is melted, you pour it into a bowl of cold water and watch it take shape.  After it’s hardened and cooled, you take it out of the water and try to determine what shape it most closely resembles.  Some people also hold the piece up to the candle and try to see a shape in the shadow.  Every shape has a meaning, or fortune.

In Germany, you can buy packs that include the spoon, lead pieces, and interpretation guide.

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Bleigießen is a lot of fun, but just be careful!  Most of these kits still use real lead, which can be quite dangerous.  Not just if you inhale the fumes or get it on your skin, but also if you drink too much beforehand and spill it on the rug.  Because, yes, this does happen!

The grocery stores usually start selling them just before Christmas.  All of the big chains like Rewe and Aldi sell them.  I always find them in the knick-knack area (like where mini-candles, wrapping paper, and random stocking-stuffer type things are).  You can also order them off of Amazon.

#2. “Dinner for One”

I think it’s always surprising to Germans that most Americans are not familiar with this skit.  I mean, they’re taken aback already that we don’t watch it every year on NYE, but they’re definitely bewildered that we’ve never even heard of it.  At least, that’s how my husband reacted the first time he suggested we watch it, and I said, “‘Dinner for One?’  What the heck is that?”  Little did I know just how prevalent this skit is here in Germany.

What’s equally interesting about it is that it’s not German – it’s British.  And it’s in English.

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Photo Credit: welt.de

“Dinner for One” (sometimes called “Der 90. Geburtstag” in German) is a comedy sketch from the 1920s.  It’s about a lady named Ms. Sophie who is celebrating her 90th birthday.  Unfortunately, all of her usual guests have already passed away, but each person still has a place setting.  Ms. Sophie carries on the meal as if they’re all still there, making a toast before each course.  James, her butler, makes his way around the table, impersonating each guest, and drinking their glasses of wine.  By the end of the 10 minute skit, James is hammered.  He’s spilling wine everywhere, slurring his words, and throwing food into the air.  It’s funny, a little sad, and ends on a rather suggestive note, and it is something every German watches on NYE.

It’s kind of like A Christmas Story in the States in that it comes on TV repeatedly that day.  It’s even in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most frequently repeated TV program in television history.  But you can also watch it on YouTube.  Just be sure that you watch the original 1963 black and white version, though, as that is the classic.

#3. Glücksbringer (“lucky charm“)

You’ve probably seen these little guys in just about every store you’ve been in over the last couple of weeks, but did you know they’re for New Year’s Eve?  In addition to the Bleigießen and watching “Dinner for One,” it’s also customary to give lucky charms to friends and acquaintances to wish them good luck in the new year.

Most often, you’ll see pigs, chimney sweeps, four leaf clovers, and mushrooms.  Each one being very closely associated with happiness and prosperity in Germany (especially the pig).  But you might also see lady bugs, coins, or even horseshoes.

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Photo Credit: amazon.de

Some of them are decorations, and some of them are edible.  It doesn’t really matter which one you give someone (figure or material) because it’s the act itself that brings the other person good luck in the new year.

#4. Fireworks

Fireworks are to Germans on NYE what they are to Americans on the Fourth of July.  Well, almost.  Think of the biggest, most outrageous firework show you ever saw on the Fourth of July and then multiply it by 500.  That’s NYE in Germany.  If you’ve never experienced it before, you are in for a real treat.  You have no idea just how big and how many fireworks there are.

In the States, you typically have to go to a show, right?  And it’s usually put on by the city or town.  If you live out in the country, you can set off your own fireworks, or in some cities, you can have sparklers or other non-dangerous or non-potentially-fire-starting fireworks (especially in dry parts of Texas).

But, that’s not the case here.

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Sorry for the poor quality.

This is a picture of a small village in the Eifel on NYE of last year.  Normally, you would be able to see rows of houses and a church in the background, but they are all completely obscured by smoke here, and this was when the fireworks were just getting started.  That’s because everyone – and I mean almost all 83 million of them – sets off fireworks at midnight.  You can buy them in most stores, and you can set them off pretty much everywhere.  A lot of people are in the habit of having to go somewhere to see fireworks, but on NYE, the streets of every village are filled with people setting of fireworks.  In the hours leading up to midnight, you’ll hear a lot of music and partying.  And then at midnight, everyone comes outside – adults and children alike – to set off fireworks for what feels like a solid 40 minutes.

The noise is so loud and overwhelming that it sounds like a warzone.  The smoke is so thick that, by the time it’s all over, you can barely make out the lines of houses across the street.  It is something to experience, I’m telling you!

And then on New Year’s Day, after a night of reading your fortune in melted lead, watching “Dinner for One,” handing out lucky charms, and setting off copious amounts of fireworks, enjoy the lazy day by taking down your Christmas tree.

Wait.  Don’t take down that Christmas tree just yet!

Bonus Tip: One Thing Not To Do

Most of us from the States are accustomed to taking our Christmas trees down on New Year’s Day, but in Germany, they leave their trees up until January 6th.  That’s because here Christmas isn’t over until Epiphany.  This holiday (though not one in our area that anyone gets the day off for) commemorates the day when the three wise men reached the manger.  So, you can’t take the tree down – or even the decorations – until January 7th, the day after Epiphany.

And, finally, don’t forget to wish everyone “Guten Rutsch!”  (which literally means to have a good slide into the New Year).

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