Salt and Bread as House-Warming Gifts?

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Let’s start this article with this scenario: Two female friends from Bavaria, who have known each other since college, decide to open a restaurant in a rural community in Hesse, where a few of their former college mates and cousins are living. They purchase this small building that has a restaurant on the first floor and an apartment on the second floor. After two weeks of moving and renovations, they have a house-warming party where they invite friends and family, as well as some helpful neighbors and even their first customers. While many they know give them some useful items for their home and business as well as some wine and food, the two girlfriends become astonished, when half the people invited give them as gifts……

BREAD AND SALT!!!!

Before going a bit further into the topic, let’s have a look at the symbols of the commodities we do know. Salt had been known as the common commodity for trade, having been used during the Middle Ages as a leverage of power. Salt has many uses, as seen in the examples mentioned in Saxony-Anhalt and in particular, Halle (Saale).  In Christian terms, the bread symbolized the body of Jesus Christ and the wine as his blood- both taken at communion. Gold and resin were symbols of birth and happiness, as interpreted during the Birth of Jesus.

But the concept of bread and salt as house-warming gifts are, believe it or not, customary in Germany. I learned about this concept through a student in one of my English classes, who received just that for his home in eastern Thuringia and mentioned that this is the traditional norm. While in normal households one is greeted with wine, food and the basic necessities for the apartment, such as appliances, knick-knacks and perhaps a good candle light dinner (yes, I’ve heard of such stories), bread and salt seemed to be the normal house-warming gifts.

In fact, after doing some research on this, one can find this tradition in much of Germany. The reason is that bread symbolizes the full cupboards and the elimination of hunger, while salt represents the flavor in life. One cannot live a life without salt. It is unknown where the tradition originated from except to say that bread and salt have their symbolic presence in Slavic, Russian, Jewish and even Arabic Cultures, all of whom have similar meanings involving life, happiness and the avoidance of hunger. They all provide the newly occupied tenants with a starting point in life, where they can prosper from there.

Yet bread and salt are not the only gifts a person can give, especially if people deem the gifts as either unusual or even inappropriate. Other traditional gifts have been given to the new tenants, each of which has its own symbolic meaning, like the following below:

  • Sugar: Means “So your life shall always have sweetness”
  • Wine: Symbolizes the hope “That joy and prosperity may reign forever”…or…”That your family will never be thirsty”…or…”So you will always be of good cheer”
  • Honey: So that you may always enjoy the sweetness of life
  • Broom: “So your home may always be clean” or “To help sweep away any evil and bad luck”
  • Coin: “So you may dwell in good fortune”
  • Candle: “So that this house will always have light” or “So you may dwell in light and happiness”

In some traditions, especially in the rural areas, a house-warming tradition includes a cook-out and potluck dinner, where friends and neighbors bring something to share with the new tenants, most of it is homemade and from farms, such as canned goods, homemade jams and juices and smoked meat, but also goods made from wood that are useful for the household. Most of these traditions one will find in central and northern Germany, where the population is more sparse than the southern half.

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While this tradition applies for new neighbors, it can also apply for newlyweds as well, as especially bread and salt represent an alliance that will never die of hunger or be boring. And when tying this in with being new neighbors in a small community, one already has established a network of friends and family that are a lifetime’s worth keeping. A sense of hope in an ever-changing environment. 🙂

When compared to the American tradition, one can consider house-warming gifts in Germany as a sign of openness and getting acquainted with new people. In America, house-warming gifts are mostly associated with the Welcome Wagon, where representatives pay a new tenant of a house a visit with a basket of flowers, broschures and infos on what to do in the community, and some small goods, as you can see in the video below:

The Welcome Wagon is not as popular today as it was in the 1970s and 80s, but some remnants of strangers stopping by for a visit are common in American culture today. Even a short visit to say hi from the new neighbors is not untypical and one that should not be considered rude:

To conclude, bread and salt do have a place in German culture and serve as a house-warming gift, however other gifts with similar meanings, as mentioned above, are just as common. They all have one meaning, which is to have a long and prosperous life, whether the two people are newly married or new neighbors or both. While other people prefer other more practical gifts to get the household started, one should not be surprised and disappointed if your next door neighbor gives you bread and salt as gifts. Each gift has a symbolic meaning which should be considered in a positive sense. With bread and salt, the tradition goes way back intime, and even if it is not practiced everywhere in Germany, they still consider the two commodities customary.  🙂

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Happy Children’s Day

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When was the last time you did something special for your child? Did you take him/her to the zoo to feed the animals, throw a party and invite his/her friends over, or made a special treat for him/her? If it has been a while and you have not had a chance to make a child happy, then today is the day. While we have special days of celebration for mothers and fathers, today is Children’s Day, where we take pride in our children and do something really special for them.
The interesting part about Children’s Day is that for the most part, they are celebrated on two different days: 20 November and 1 June, which is today. The one on 20 November was based on an proclamation by the International Union of Child Welfare in Geneva in 1953, which was later supported through an agreement with the United Nations General Assembly in 1954, calling it Universal Children’s Day. Five years later, a Declaration on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN and signed by all its members 30 years later.
While Universal Children’s Day is still being proclaimed by the UN to this day, most countries in the world celebrate Children’s Day independently instead of celebrating it with the UN- Canada is one of a handful of countries that have Children’s Day on the same day as the UN’s Universal Children’s Day. The main date of celebration is 1 June, as an International Day of Children was proclaimed in 1950, based on agreements made by countries in the former Soviet Bloc, including East Germany. When Communism made a rapid descent to oblivion beginning with the Berlin Wall falling on 9 November and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the former states continued to celebrate Chidren’s Day on 1 June. East and West Germany had their Children Day celebrations on two separate dates: 20 September in the western half and 1 June in the eastern half. Since the Reunification, the country has still celebrated Children’s Day on two separate dates. Officially it follows Canada’s suit, yet still the former East German states celebrate on 1 June.  Interesting enough, the USA is one of only a few countries where Children’s Day is recognized in regions within their own boundaries. Although Children’s Day has been celebrated on the first Sunday in June since President George W. Bush introduced it in June 2001, many communities, states and churches celebrate either earlier or later, thus making the national holiday obsolete. And is there a country that does NOT celebrate Children’s Day or even recognize Universal Children’s Day? You betcha, and alarming enough, you find this on European soil- in Great Britain. With claims that it is a holiday that is wasted and keeps children out of schools, as Gordon Brown claimed during his time as Prime Minister, Children’s Day is not celebrated in the UK, although its western neighbor, Ireland, celebrates this day on 25 March. (Makes me wonder whether current Premier David Cameron should set an example for others like Brown to follow….)
So what do children do on this special day? It varies from country to country. In places like Ecuador, Albania and Bulgaria, children receive gifts from their parents and other family members. In places like Australia and New Zealand, they organize activities around annual themes that deal with domestic issues and children. In some places, like Mexico, children are honored with activities, parades and other events. Bulgarians promote children’s safety by driving with their lights on all day long. In Vanuatu, children make speeches addressing the issues like child labor and abuse, while being honored through parades, etc. In Paraguay, Children’s Day is in connection with the anniversary of the infamous Battle of Acosta Nu on 16 August, 1869 where the army of 20,000 men crush an army of 3,500 children ages 6 through 15 who were fighting a battle already lost. It is a national holiday to commemorate the atrocities that were committed by the Brazilians during the five-year war. While the children can visit the zoo for free on their special day in Slovakia, they are treated like kings in Thailand, where a theme is created by the government and children can tour all aspects of the Thai regime and other institutions. And yes, they can use the public transport and visit the zoos and other places for free as well.
While the churches in the USA honor their children during a Sunday church service- as agreed upon through first the Universalist Convention in Baltimore in 1867 and later through the proclamation by now former President George W. Bush- in Germany, children usually receive presents from their families and schools and kindergartens arrange for field trips and other events to make their day special. After all, the children are the future and efforts are being made to encourage families to have children. This includes many states providing funding for parents who take maternity leave for up to three years, as well as for constructing kindergartens, renovating schools and hiring teachers. Even companies are constructing kindergartens and encouraging their workers to work and take care of their children, a mentality that is for the most part unthinkable in other places, like the US and the UK.

There is a reason for that, which is the fact that Germany, like many countries in western Europe is on the decline in terms of population. At the moment, the population is at 79 million, down from 82.3 million in 2000. The causes of such a decline are emigration to other countries, the population is aging, and lastly, the working conditions which discourages people from creating families. Henceforth beginning in 2005, the government and the private sector began taking a proactive stance and created measures to encourage people to have children. In the seven years since the initiative was started, we have seen a moderate increase in the population but only in areas where the job prospects are at their highest- in technology areas, like Jena, Dresden and Frankfurt, as well as in large cities in the northern parts of the country, including Berlin, Hamburg and other areas. Even big cities like Nuremberg and Munich are seeing population growth as a result of these measures. Whether this will offset the population decline remains to be seen, but Germany is taking steps in the right direction to replenish the population.

Regardless of the reasons for having children, we should take advantage of Children’s Day and look at our young ones for who they are, treat them like king and help them along the way. After all, we are the ones responsible for our children’s future and the children are the ones who are leading the way to one that will be better than what we have at the moment. I would like to close this entry with a Thai saying that states: “Children are the future of the nation, if the children are intelligent, the country will be prosperous.”  We have taken many steps to foster the children’s development. We should enjoy the day and take pride in the next generation that will lead the way after we are gone. Enjoy this day, everyone.