Monday, October 31, 2011

The serious business of holidays

Tomorrow, November 1st, is All Saints Day. What's that? If you're American, chances are you don't even know. I would bet that if you took a random selection of Americans, from both rural and urban areas, that more than half of them couldn't tell you when and what All Saints Day is. I only found out about it because apparently it's the Anglo equivalent of Dio de Los Muertos, which is celebrated in San Francisco, where I used to live.
Well, all Germans sure do know about All Saints Day. Why? Because it's on the long roster of national holidays! That's right: make sure you go grocery shopping on October 31st (which, incidentally is not Halloween as that doesn't really exist here), because ain't nothin' open on November 1st.

And November isn't the only month which has a national holiday on its first day, May 1st is also a holiday. I don't even know what it's called, but it's about celebrating workers by not working. In fact, May is the month which holds the most of these one-day wonders. I'm too lazy (and Babu will wake up from his nap too soon) to look it up, but there are something like 4 or 5 one-day holidays in May. They all fall on Mondays and Thursdays. The school where I teach even offers students whose regular lessons happen on Mondays or Thursdays an extra free Saturday workshop in May to make up for all the classes they miss due to these holidays. Most of these one day holidays are Catholic or Christian, days that in America only nuns and cardinals observe. That's why I can't even translate the German names into English because they're days I'm not even aware of in English.

On the subject of holidays and translations, German has a word which doesn't exist in English, simply because we don't have the need since we don't have all these holidays: Brückentag. It means, literally, bridge day, and it's the Friday between one of those Thursday holidays and the weekend....or, as the case with tomorrow's holiday which falls on a Tuesday, the Monday which bridges the day off to the weekend. Lots of people use one of their given days off from work  on a Brückentag to make a four day weekend.

Which brings me to the next related point: German employees get 30 paid days off per year. That's six work weeks per year. In addition to all these one-day holidays (I think there are around 10-12 of those, depending on the state). So that means the average German works 10 out of 12 months per year, so to speak. This is one aspect of European (it's not just German) culture I can really get behind! In fact, it's one of the reasons I would be reluctant to move back to America. Americans get, on average, 10 paid days off per year. If they're lucky. Many can not or do not actually get to take these days, and if I'm not mistaken in most states there's no law guaranteeing they get them. It's not unusual for an American to go years without a holiday. That would never, ever happen here. Not only is it forbidden by law, but it's so deeply ingrained in the culture that it would be unthinkable to either willingly or by force miss out on your holidays. Germans gasp at the idea of only 2 weeks paid vacation per year. As well they should! Not only do Americans get cheated on paid vacations, but these Christian holidays (like All Saints Day) are not days off ~well, besides Christmas and Easter Monday. Sure, they have Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and July 4th ~none of which exist here~ but in comparison to Europe, Americans have a serious lack of vacations.

One might be tempted to believe Americans, since they work far more hours per week and days per year than Europeans, are hard workers. Alas, this is not the case. My theory goes that since Americans are expected to work long weeks, often with unpaid overtime (in Germany the average workweek is 38 hours and overtime is, by law, always paid, very often in, you guessed it: days off!), they get their revenge by slacking off and not working all that hard. Whereas Germans, to whom holidays are an entitlement just like food, shelter and water, are some of the most hard-working and efficient folks on this planet (yes, another true stereotype!).  Germans take their work very seriously, but they also take their leisure time just as seriously. (Count on the Germans to make fun a serious endeavor!). Here's a beautiful German word that has no English equivalent: Feierabend. Feier means celebration and Abend means evening. Feierabend means when you get off work and then have the evening to do with what you please. It's the time of day when you arrive home, have a drink and plan your next holiday. I love that Germans honor this feeling: "Yay! Work is over for today!" with its very own word.

As I said, I am in full favor of this aspect of German / European culture. I would miss it very sorely if I ever moved back to the US. However, there are two down sides: if you are a freelancer, none of this applies to you. My hubby is a freelancer, and I was for many years. Freelancers do not get any paid holidays. Of course they get the national holidays off, but they're unpaid. It's kind of expected that they, too, will take those precious 30 days off throughout the year, so they do "get" them, so to speak. But they're not paid. There are many aspects of the German / European system which are a "you work for us, we work for you" kind of policy. And, according to this socialist-ic-y view, freelancers are not part of the system because *gasp!* they are working for themselves and not society. I'll never forget how my late good friend (and fellow freelancer) Ian used to say: "They only recently stopped burning freelancers at the stake in Germany". Haha, miss you Ian!
The other down side to this holiday madness is if you happen to be the employer. I am not an employer, but my son does attend daycare and although it's private and the daycare provider is, I believe, freelance, she still gets those 6 weeks a year off. Paid. That means we pay for six weeks of daycare we don't get. Not to mention all these other days off, also paid. By us. Gah! I know this contradicts what I just said about freelancers not getting paid days off, but since there is a severe lack of daycare places in Germany (another topic for another day), daycare providers can easily give themselves six paid weeks off per year and no one will complain, since we're just happy to have found decent daycare at all! At this time Babu hasn't even been in daycare six months, and already she has had two two week periods closed, in addition to about six individual national holidays. From my perspective this has been an expensive pain in the ass.

But I have to keep it all in the bigger picture here. It's worth it to have what seems like part-time daycare and pay for full-time, if it means I live amongst people who hold their free time very dear. Germans may be imbalanced in other ways, but they definitely have a balanced view of work and free time.

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