Buß- und Bettag: Saxony’s Version of Memorial Day…… Or is it?

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In America, we have two different types of memorial days- Memorial Day itself, which honors those who passed on, and Veteran’s Day, which honors and also memorializes those who fought in all the wars that the US has been involved in to date.  The first one takes place on the last Monday of every May and is considered a statutory non-working holiday. There, flowers are lain on the graves of those lost. Parades honoring the fallen and church services are held on that day.  Veteran’s Day was introduced over 100 years ago as part of the Treaty of Armistice, thus declaring World War I officially over on the 11th of November, 1918 at the 11th minute of the 11th hour. Governmental offices and most businesses and schools are closed on that day, pending on the individual state’s guidelines,  and the holiday is celebrated in many ways- be it parades or other ceremonies, public addresses or other civil gatherings.

In Germany we have one holiday that has the equivalence to Memorial Day but has, as one person had put it in an interview, become a long-forgotten holiday.  Buß und Bett Tag, known as the Day of Repentance and Prayer if translated into English, was first introduced by the Kingdom of Prussia in 1878 and got its origins from the days after Martin Luther’s Reformation in 1532 as Emperor Charles V proclaimed, at the behest of the Protestants, to commemorate the Ottoman conquest of the Holy Roman Empire in 1354. When the Prussian Empire succumbed to the German Empire in 1871, the day was later adopted in all of the newly-formed German states, where the Day of Prayer was to take place either 11 days before the first Advent and/or before the 23rd of November- as originally declared during Prussia’s existence.  That day was abolished in 1934 by Hitler and was only partially lifted in the 1960s, where only the western half celebrated it and the eastern half was banned from celebrating it by the SED_dictatorship.

It was not until 1990 when a newly-reunified Germany reintroduced it to all the states, but only temporarily. In 1994, the government under Kohl introduced a bill to reform the health care and social security system, requiring more payments into the system and people to work more hours. As part of the package, all the federal states voted to add a day onto the working schedule, hence the elimination of Buß und Bett Tag.

All of them except Saxony.  In Bavaria, it is still a working holiday but the children have the day off from school.

While Buß und Bett Tag is practiced today in those two states, there are many theories as to how people still interpret this day. It is a non-working holiday in Saxony, going by the proclamation by the book, yet the residents are required to pay 13-15% more into the health care fund for that day. When asked what people do on that day, the response: We travel to the Czech Republic, or to the neighboring states because there are businesse open there.

Has Buß und Bett Tag become the long-forgotten holiday, as forgotten as the Sunday ritual of going to church? I decided to find out how it is celebrated to this day. Being a member of a church choir for the day, I earned a free pass to see how the holiday is observed, and this is what I found:

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It turns out, Buß und Bett Tag is not only the time to remember the people who died, but it is a time of reflection of our own past actions and what we can do to right the wrongs done onto others. Pending on which church a person attends in Saxony, the holiday brings people together for over an hour of church service. Yet in other cases, concerts are added to the mix, using songs that honor the people and their relationship with the Lord.  At a church in Zwickau, the congregation was treated to a short skit in connection with the Lost Son (the book of Luke 15:11-32)  but in modern form, followed by a sermon on how forgiveness and reconciliation far outweigh the sins committed onto others. Lessons on how to treat others well despite their backgrounds reinforce the meaning of the holiday  in terms of reflection.  At a church in Glauchau, a choir concert, featuring two choirs and an orchestra, rocking to the tunes of John Rutter and Antonin Dvorak honor the dead and those retiring from the years of hard work, thus stressing the meaning of the holiday in terms of honor.

Still, the number of people participating in these events are relatively small, running parallel to the problems America is currently facing with a decline in church attendance and the forced consolidation of two or more congretations.  And while the majority of church-goers in the US are over 50 years of age, in Germany, there seems to be an even proportion of people paying respects to the Lord, including families (especially with children), friends and strangers.  From the view of the majoirty, when looking at the scene on this day, one can see children playing, families catching up on housework and even small businesses doing overtime to set up the huts for the Christmas market, which starts on the following weekend in the first Advent.  Despite this trend, it does not mean one needs to follow the suit of the other states by “getting with the program” and abolishing this sacred day.  Granted unions have been striving to push for the abolition of extra pay into the health care and pensioner’s fund citing its irrelevance to today’s standards.

Judging from my observations, having a day like Buß und Bett Tag could be a blessing even if it is considered the official day of rest. Most countries in the western hemisphere have a special day commemorating the living and the dead, honoring them for their work. If each state in Germany was to follow what is being followed in Saxony, it would serve as an opportunity for all people to honor and pay tribute to those who deserved it, pray for those who are in need (and find ways to help them), and repent for the sins done onto others (and again find ways to forgive them).  One doesn’t need to have a fancy ceremony, like parades and the like, as seen in Memorial Day celebrations, but simply church services, charitable events and concerts with the themes of reflection and tribute, as seen here in Saxony. Anything more than that would be considered overkill.

Many of us seem to forget the real meaning of family and friendship, respecting and honoring some and helping others because we are all consumed by work, individual gratification and materialistic items. In fact some holidays, like Christmas and Easter have become so materialistic and sometimes ignored, that their underlying meanings have become very irrelevant.  When we think of only Father Christmas/ Santa Claus/ Der Weihnachtsmann and the presents we receive from them, then it is time to reexamine ourselves and look at the real meaning of these holidays, which means the life of Christ, and the meaning of the people in our lives whom we care about.

Therefore, we should keep this day of remembrance and reflection, so that we can remember the people who made a difference in our lives, reflect on what we have done and what we should do differently and especially, reconsider some things in our lives because of the potential for failure. Buß und Bett Tag has a much thorougher meaning than what has been perceived. It’s not just a day of rest, but a day to look back and look forward. While Germany has many holidays, these holidays are meant for a time of rest, reflection, reunions and gatherings and refueling ourselves for work. By eliminating even one day for the purpose of work,  we take away more than that day to spend it for ourselves and our families and friends.  Therefore, when having another day like this one in the future, think about what we have and what we have done (or should be doing). A little time of reflection and remembrance will help a person go an even longer way.

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The biblical origin of this day stems from the book of Jonah, which states the following:

And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. 5So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. 6For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: 8But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? 10And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not

Jonah 3:4-10

 

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