How German Traditions Work

By: Lance Looper

German culture: It gets around.
German culture: It gets around.

Nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist" [source: Wicks]. Nietzsche built his reputation on challenging traditional moral subscriptions, but right or wrong, it's hard to argue with this statement. And being German, Nietzsche may have been on to something. Germans have a wide variety of traditions, and this article provides a glimpse of how such varied traditions and customs can be seen in everything from food to music to dress.

Historians disagree on Germany's origins, but we do know that in the year 911, the Bavarians, Franks, Swabians and Saxons formed the Kingdom of Germany [source: Kitchen]. Shortly after this convergence, Otto the Great took over the throne from his father and steered Germany to becoming the premier European power.


These disparate people groups created a melting pot of ideals and traditions that would turn into one of the most influential cultures in the world. America in particular has benefited from the influence of Germany, and the footprints of German settlers endure. The first German immigrants made their way to America in 1608 and settled in Jamestown, the first successful English settlement in the New World [source: National Park Service]. Over the next century, more and more Germans would leave their home in search of new opportunities, land and religious freedom. One of the first predominately German settlements in the United States was Germantown, a few miles north of Philadelphia, where settlers began building Germany's reputation for producing quality goods and services in fields ranging from carpentry to fashion [source: Callard]

In this article, we'll take a look at some of today's more interesting traditions with roots in German culture. Let's start with the most logical topic -- food. German has a rich culinary history, and in the next section, we'll take a look at some popular, traditional German foods.

Traditional German Food

Currywurst, the quintessential (and beloved) German dish.
Currywurst, the quintessential (and beloved) German dish.

The varied geography of Germany, which includes coastal plains, high-altitude mountains and thick forests, shaped an interesting culinary landscape. Early farmers had to grow what was suitable to the land, which limited their choices since they didn't have the flexibility to rotate crops the way growers in more forgiving regions could. This, combined with long winters and short harvest seasons, put an emphasis on hearty grains including barley, wheat, and hops. From these ingredients, this region started brewing beer in around 800 B.C. and Germany's long, rich history as brewmasters began [source: German Beer Institute].

But that's not to say the land did not provide. An abundance of water both from snowmelt in the Alps and a network of rivers working their way through the land toward the North Sea, were ideal for grazing animals. Wild game and domesticated livestock including cattle and goats supplemented their early diet until more advanced farming and irrigation techniques were developed and a wider variety of crops, potatoes in particular, became accessible.


At the height of the Roman Empire, several settlements cropped up as far north as the Danube River, which crosses the southern portion of modern-day Germany. This opened up important trade routes that introduced spices, fruits, and vegetables that until then were exotic to the area.

Modern German food reflects these early influences with an emphasis still on basic, hearty meals -- the meat and potatoes of European fare. This is particularly true in the northern region. In the south, influences from Italy and France have colored German cuisine where pasta is often substituted for potatoes.

Perhaps it's this lack of variety that makes Germans so inventive. For example, few things are held in the same esteem in Germany as sausage. There are more than 1,500 varieties and the average German consumes nearly 70 pounds (31.75 kg) of the stuff every year [source: German Foods North America].

And if you think they take sausage seriously, consider the venerable wiener schnitzel. This dish originated in Austria and is pretty simple. It consists of a veal fillet or some other thin, boneless cut of meat that is breaded and fried. Typically served rare in Europe, Americans prefer it thoroughly cooked. But the most interesting thing about schnitzel isn't the food itself, but how protective Germany is over its use. In Austria it is a matter of copyright law that schnitzel made from pork must be referred to as Wiener Schnitzel vom Schwein so it is not confused for its pork predecessor [source: Hassani]. How's that for patriotism!

Hungry yet? In the next section we'll take a look at some German fashions that may be useful for hiding the extra pounds you gained on this page.

Traditional German Clothing

It's pretty easy to recognize traditional German dress.
It's pretty easy to recognize traditional German dress.
Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Thinkstock

Food is one thing, but we've just begun to scratch the surface of the eccentricities German culture has to offer. If you've been to Oktoberfest, which are celebrated all over the world, you're familiar with lederhosen and dirndls. Lederhosen, which means "leather trousers" in German, are the short, leather pants worn by men. These are usually knee-length and are the historically worn by working-class German men. The dirndl is a ruffled apron dress worn by German women that consists of a bodice, or blouse, and a skirt. In the 19th century, the dirndl was the standard uniform of servant girls, but today it is mostly worn in Bavaria and Austria, and like lederhosen, usually for celebration. Each of these garments is a type of tracht, which historically was used to help identify people as members of a certain status (social, political or otherwise).

How in the world would one accessorize such things? Let's start with shoes. For the ladies, a soft, felt shoe with clunky heels and decorative buckles would typically accompany the dirndl. While not exactly clogs, these shoes would work just fine for an evening of dancing. Men would usually opt for the haferl shoe, a thick leather or rubber sole invented in Bavaria for farming. Shoemaker Franz Schratt based the design on that of animal hooves, and the word heferl, roughly translated, means "half a shoe." These were also easy on the feet, and men took great pride in the care that went into handcrafting their haferl.


The men rounded their outfits out with a typical Alpine hat, usually made of warm felt or wool, with a brim that went all the way around to offer protection from the sun. While these fashions can be found in all parts of Germany, there are subtle differences from region to region.

So, what's a German to do once he or she is all dressed up in traditional garb? Go dancing, of course. But you can't dance without music. We'll get your toes tapping in the next section, where we will discuss traditional German music.

Traditional German Music

This guy takes his Oompah music seriously.
This guy takes his Oompah music seriously.

Musical history in Germany is just as colorful as the country's dress. The Reformation, the religious movement away from the Catholic church that gave birth to Protestantism, was led by Martin Luther, from Germany, and John Calvin, from France. Luther felt music was one of God's greatest gifts and made it a cornerstone of his movement [source: Kitchen]. This environment cultivated generations of musical development and paved the way for German composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Music is perhaps the area where German culture is most prevalent beyond its own borders. Particularly in America, the influence of German immigrants is inescapable and may be largely responsible for the rise of symphony orchestras, which along with opera, was a popular art form in Germany, in metropolitan areas with large German populations. As early as 1853, Milwaukee hosted a performance of German composer Albert Lörtzing’s opera “Zar und Zimmermann” to an audience of 800. This was at a time when the city was only 30,000 strong [source: Daniels].


From that point onward, German-born conductors were a primary influence in American orchestras, conducting symphonies in Chicago and New York. And German-American banker Otto Kahn financed the Metropolitan Opera during its formative years [source: Daniels].

Volksmusic (not the iPod in your VW Beatle) and Oompah music are two traditional genres that have become synonymous with the Germany. Volksmusic , which originated in the mountainous region of southern Germany, translates to "music of the people" and is played primarily in Bavaria. These folk songs are usually very colloquial and performed on simple instruments such as guitars or harmonicas. Oompah music is a term that encompasses several forms of horn-centric music played in Eastern European countries. Oompah is played by brass bands and gets its name from the thump-thump-thumping of the tuba, one of the most important pieces for any self-respecting Oompah band. In addition to brass, Oompah also uses/incorporates/employs accordions, which produce such a distinct sound that can invoke cravings of sausage and beer. It's difficult to determine the age of each of these genres, but both are still performed and are widely popular today.

German music is an important element for the beirgarten, which originated in Bavaria in the 19th century [source: German Beer Institute]. Before ice blocks made refrigeration at least a little more accessible, biergartens were where beer was stored. And where beer is stored, beer drinkers will congregate. Today, biergartens are operated around the world and are among the most recognizable German traditions.

In the next section, we'll discuss other German traditions -- including Oktoberfest.

German Customs and Traditions

Ho, ho, holy cow, it's Krampus, the Christmas demon! Suddenly, a lump of coal doesn't seem so bad...
Ho, ho, holy cow, it's Krampus, the Christmas demon! Suddenly, a lump of coal doesn't seem so bad...
Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Most people are familiar with the German festival Oktoberfest. In fact, you've probably been to one. These celebrations happen all over the world and are particularly popular in America, where Oktoberfest is celebrated in 36 of 50 states. All of these facsimiles are modeled after the original, which started in Munich in 1810. The original event lasted five days and was thrown as a celebration of Bavarian Prince Ludwig's marriage. Today, Bavaria's Oktoberfest lasts 16 days, and attendees consume more than 1.3 million gallons of beer and 400,000 sausages [source: German Information Center USA]. Antacids, anyone?

Beyond Oktoberfest (hiccup) there are other German traditions that are more prevalent but less distinguishable. Let's start with Christmas. Nearly 75 years before Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote "The Nutcracker", German E.T.A. Hoffman featured a nutcracker that comes to life in his play, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." And what's Christmas without gingerbread or advent calendars? Both of these holiday staples owe their history to German roots, as do many of the Christmas carols we sing today: "Silent Night," "O Christmas Tree" and "Away in a Manger," just to name a few.


Many of the things associated with Easter date back to Germany as well. The Easter Bunny was first mentioned as a symbol of the holiday in German writings from the 1500s [Source: Lutheran Hour Ministries]. Candy bunnies? Germany. Easter egg hunts? Germany. Easter baskets? Yep, all from Germany and all born in the early 19th century. But before you get the impression that holidays in Germany are all candy and carols, consider the legend of Krampus, the demonic creature that accompanies Santa on Christmas Eve. Rather than simply being left off the list, or receiving a lump of coal for Christmas, Krampus punished bad children.

Holidays are one thing, but Germans also know how to throw a wedding party. Since Germany has built its reputation on careful planning and exacting engineering standards, it's no surprise that this bleeds into nuptials as well -- an engaged couple is required to give the government six weeks' notice before their wedding. But once the party starts, it's not unusual for it to last up to three days. The legal part of the proceedings is the civil ceremony and can be as simple as the bride, the groom and the official.

Next comes the wedding gala, and this is where the fun really begins. Guests bring old dishes and toss them at the couple's feet, the shattering glass signifying good luck. This is called polterbend, which translated means "an evening with lots of racket." Once all of the dishes have been broken, the couple sweeps up the shards to symbolize that nothing in their marriage will be broken again. Another German wedding tradition happens when the wedding guests caravan the bride's belongings to her new home, where the groom greets her with beer (naturally).

As you can see, German culture is all around you, whether you realize it or not. From the way we celebrate holidays to the food we eat, these traditions and customs have anchored themselves in societies around the globe.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Callard, Judith. "Images of America: Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill." Arcadia Publishing. 2000.
  • Daniels, Robert. "Coming to America: A History of Migration and Ethnicity in American Life." HarperCollins. 1990.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica Online. "Wiener Schnitzel." (July 9, 2011)
  • German Beer Institute. "Three Millennia of German Brewing." (July 14, 2011)
  • German Beer Institute. "The Beer Garden: The Epitome of German Beer Culture." (July 14, 2011)
  • German Foods North America. "Guide to German Sausages & Meat Products." (July 9, 2011)
  • German Information Center USA. "Discover German Originality." (July 9, 2011)
  • German Information Center USA. "Oktoberfest." (July 9, 2011)
  • Hassani, Nadia. "Spoonfuls of Germany: Culinary Delights of the German Regions in 170 Recipes." Hippocrene Books. 2004
  • Kitchen, Martin. "Germany." Cambridge University Press. 1996.
  • Lutheran Hour Ministries. "Easter Symbols." (July 14, 2011)
  • National Park Service. "Historic Jamestowne." (July 8, 2011)
  • Pells, Richard. "Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II." BasicBooks. 1997
  • Wicks, Robert. "Friedrich Nietzsche." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2011. (July 8, 2011)