Salt and Bread as House-Warming Gifts?

imgp0054

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.

gc35

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.  🙂

flefi-deutschland-logo

Christmas market tour 2013 Pop Quiz Part I: The answer

Photo taken in November 2013

 

And now the answer to the first question in our Pop Quiz:

We wanted to know from you what this picture is. This was taken during our stop at the Christmas market in Gera, Thuringia. Here’s the answer:

Futterkrippe (rough translation for cratch)

Believe it or not, a manger set is not complete without a cratch for the animals. This goes back to the story of how Jesus Christ was born in accordance to the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mary and Joseph went from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Yet when he was born, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, for the inn was full and there was no other place left to stay. The animals depicted in the manger, the donkey, camel, and sheep were present at the time of the birth and they needed to be fed accordingly. This is where the cratch came into the picture.  It is filled with fodder or other feed, and animals can eat off that, while having their heads protected from the rain, etc.  by a roof

One can see these in the manger sets at many of the Christmas markets in Germany, especially those in areas that are surrounded by forests, like the ones in Thuringia, Saxony, Hesse and Bavaria. They’re usually made out of wood from pine and fir trees and are decorated with needles, as depicted in the picture. Some are attached to the manger set, while others just stand out alone, representing a symbol of hope and prosperity that would come out of the birth of our Lord. Others are integrated into a fairy tale that has animals in there.  In real life, cratches are used on farms for livestock and in forests for wildlife, in particular, deer, boar and the like.   But in the case of the Christmas market, they are a specialty at the market for people to see. So the next time you see one of these at a German Christmas market, remember what it is, what it is used for and how it was tied in with the story of Baby Jesus and the fairy tales.

Now, back to the Christmas market tour in Berlin and the next market place visited, which is….. 🙂

Lazarus the Bee

Say hello to Lazarus

The last weekend in May has always been touted as the celebration of life. In the USA, we honor our fallen war veterans through Memorial Day and reflect on how the soldiers gave their lives for their country, regardless of when and where they fought. While we do not have such a celebration in Germany, we do take some time off from our work and celebrate Pentecost, a religious holiday commemorating the rise of Jesus Christ and his journey to heaven and where we reflect on how He has influenced our lives through faith and love. Like Memorial Day, we have Mondays free, as well as some Tuesdays for companies that allow it.
This Pentecost weekend was a rather special one for me and my family, as we enjoyed a picnic in the breezy spring sun and took advantage of what nature brought us and spent it in the wilderness. After all, the forest was only a few minutes away from our home by foot going up the hill in the Thuringian Forest. It was also a special moment for one particular bee, who had a moment of resurrection, right before my eyes.
While we were taking photos, I noticed a thick black object on the tip of one of the weeds not far from our picnic spot. Taking a closer look at it, it was a large Bumblebee who was collecting pollen for himself and his colony from this particular weed, only to find that despite the breeze- which would normally shoo him off the weed and away from the field, he stood still, not moving at all. Even when I brought the weed up close to the camera, he appeared lifeless, as if a certain poison from the pollen sucked the tiny bit of life out of him. Even his eyes appeared closed and still creating an impression that he was no longer living.

Coming back to life

After I had stopped taking photos of the “dead” bee, I turned away for a few seconds only to find that when I returned to the spot, the first signs of life came back into the bee. It came back to life as if he reanimated himself and pretended that this stillness, this frozen moment in time had never taken place. After spending a few more minutes collecting the pollen he needed, he left to find some more pollen to collect, but he left an impression worth remembering.
When I think of this event, I remember the readings of the Bible, where Jesus brought Lazarus back to life after he was in still state for four days. For more on that, please refer to the Gospel of John 11:1-46 and 12:9-12. Many thought that Lazarus could not come back to life, until Jesus proved them wrong.  In scientific terms I remember my science teachers talking about how many amphibians would freeze in the winter time, only to reanimate themselves in the spring time to resume their livelihoods.
But the event did present an even truer meaning as far as our lives are concerned. In our society, we manage to go through life as if it was a throw-away society. We try one thing, realize that it is not our cup of tea and therefore, we throw it away for something new. This not only applies to careers- after all it is understandable if we change careers at least three times in our lifetimes. It is universal. We change partners in a short time, we change places and go where the jobs are, and we even change our hobbies- ditching one hobby we had for many years for something new. We sometimes do too many things all at once. Yet little do we realize is that we never really have a chance to get to know ourselves and find out what we are really good at. And when we find out some of the strong points we are really good at, we do not exploit it properly. Instead of being the best in what we do, we strive for money, power and recognition. We ignore who we are and become machines destined for disaster. When we fail in what we do, we give up, instead of trying again. When we make mistakes, we keep moving instead of reflecting on the mistakes and finding ways to avoid them. And in the end, when things really go downhill, we leave everything for dead instead of resuscitating them, starting over and climbing back to the top again. Many of us have become the nomads of the 21st Century.

Busying himself with what he does best- living his life the way he sees it.

We all have our flaws and memories worth forgetting. But we also know that we are here for a reason, which is to provide others with our own natural talents and make them happy. There are some experiments we try and fail and let go. It is all part of life. But the most important is to try and determine which aspects of life really belong to us and that we should develop, and which ones are worth leaving behind. It is very difficult to achieve this but when it is done, we will not be considered by others as “dead to society-“ a pile of scrap heap that can be disposed of and incinerated. Instead we will be considered by others as useful because we know who we are, where we belong to, and who we should spend our lives with.
And even if things are very bleak and that our lives are considered nothing- we have been through all that at least a couple times in our lives- if we learn about ourselves and love ourselves for who we are, we too can come back to life to make a difference. It is never too late to change but only based on our natural instincts and not that of others. Our bee, whom I named Lazarus, reminded me of this as he “came to the living” after a long rest on a sunny day in the fields, making our Pentecost one to remember. I hope that others can learn from this experience too and find out more about themselves.

Black Friday: A Sign of Tradition, A Sign of the Times, or A Sign of Tyranny?

Photo taken in December 2010

As I write this column entry, people in the USA as well as American expatriates residing in Europe, Australia, Asia and elsewhere are celebrating Thanksgiving. The holiday, which occurs every fourth Thursday in November, is a special time for everyone, as it is a day for giving thanks to who we have and what we have got in our lives- family, a nice home, a decent job, and friends who keep in touch with us and are there when we need them; even in times when we lose a close family member. It is the time when we feast on a stuffed turkey, sweet potatoes, pies, rolls, and everything in between. It is a time to watch the Thanksgiving parade in many US cities as well as football games, play cards, talk about events of the past, and plan for the future…..
……especially as far as the holiday shopping season is concerned.
Thanksgiving also marks the start of the Christmas shopping season, which starts at 12:00am on this particular evening, or the morning known as Black Friday. Now who would be silly enough to do that, when in all reality people just want sit and relax and visit family and friends? Many retailers are doing just that, and many people are very angry at that notion, for that is more stress than everything. Kohls, Target, Macy’s, Wal-mart, you name it, they are doing it. But contrary to the belief that it would make the customers happy so that they can start early on the shopping- the old rule that the customer is king and should be accommodated to their needs- the underlying reason for this tactic is solely for profit.
2011 has been a very rough year for the retail industry as customers are tightening their belts and retailers are struggling to stay in the black. And this is only part of the problem that the US (and Europe) have been facing, as the economies are teetering on the edge of another recession due to high unemployment, exorbitant deficits that not even the toughest austerity measures to the government programs can cut it down to edible bites, and there is no real leadership to tackle this problem. The saddest part will be that 2012 will be the breaking point for all those affected by this problem. That means less economic growth resulting in our eventual dive into another recession and less consumption. Instead, we could see something resembling 1968 and 1848 when the public tones out the pleas to consume and holds the same governments and businesses hostage demanding a top-down reform of a system that has lost its breaks and going down a steep hill out of control and determined to slam into (…..).
The retailers are only a fraction of the problem society is facing but are still the ones that should look at the real picture regarding what the customers really want. It is not effective to have stores open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week so that the customers can go there at their own convenience. It produces meager profits and if one counts the employees’ salaries that are taken out of the profits, the end result is breaking even combined with disgruntled employees, who have to sacrifice their holidays just to earn minimum salary.
Black Friday is one of those fine examples where it was really not necessary to have stores open right at midnight, or even the evening of Thanksgiving. 25 years ago most stores opened their holiday shopping season at the absolute earliest, 7:00am; most of them at 9:00am. Sure there were huge lines, and many people did camp out on the parking lots as early as 5:00am just to be the first ones in the store. Now, people are either sacrificing their Thanksgiving or even pushing it back to Wednesdays, just so they can keep the tradition alive and satisfy the retailers’ needs, whose employees are more than furious at the notion of working on a holiday, where they want to spend time with family and the turkey. From an outsiders’ point of view, this is packing on more stress on the person than necessary, and after this season, retailers should reconsider their policies towards the holiday shopping season, so that the customers can have a healthy balance between work and life as well as food and gifts. Sometimes reverting to the good-old days where Thanksgiving is considered a national holiday where all stores are to be closed until 8:00am Friday morning and strict policies prohibiting squatting on the parking lots in front of retailers before 7:00am is the best remedy to reduce the stress on the employees and make the customers consider the true meaning of Thanksgiving, let alone Christmas.
If both holidays mean just consumption, gifts, and Santa Claus, then they are not considered holidays. We should look at the two holidays with different perspectives, and see what they really mean. The Pilgrims gave thanks for all the help they received by the Native Americans after enduring their first winter in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. They never had to worry about jewelry and fashion-named clothing, for they worried about how to survive on their own and recapturing their own identity, which was lost in the Old World (England). And Jesus Christ never liked being commercialized and glorified by the media- let alone compete with Santa. Christmas is his birthday and one should never forget why He came and how He was and still is influential in our lives. Perhaps one should take a minute to look at the true meaning of the two holidays and then think about when and how to shop for the right gift. Some will still keep to the tradition, but others will look at when it is the best time to do some Christmas shopping, but not at the expense of time for the family; esp. on a day like Thanksgiving.