Pentecost, or Pfingsten as it is known in Germany, is a Christian holiday, commemorating the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus Christ. Pfingsten is celebrated 49 days or seven weeks after Easter Sunday and ten days after Ascension Day. Therefore, it usually falls between the 10th of May and the 13th of June. Pentecost has roots in the Jewish holiday Shavuot, which is both a day of thanksgiving and a remembrance of the day on which Moses received the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, which is a central foundation narrative for all Abrahamic religions. While the Ten Commandments symbolizes the connection between God and his people, Pentecost celebrates the connection between God and his people in the form of the Holy Ghost, who told Jesus’s disciples to spread the message of Christianity. Since this marks the beginning of Christianity as an official religion for Christians, Pentecost is one of the most important Christian holidays.
There are several traditions regarding Pentecost in Germany. Like most Christian holidays, they are interwoven with local customs and therefore vary from region to region. In many areas, there will be an evening service on Sunday or a normal service on Monday, telling the story of the arrival of the Holy Ghost. Often the church is decorated with flowers and garlands. To represent the Holy Spirit, it used to be common in some regions to set live doves free or to have doves made from wood in the church. This tradition can be traced back to the Middle Ages.
One famous tradition observed in several regions in Southern Germany is the Pfingstbaum (Pentecost tree). The ceremony involves tying three birch logs into an arch decorated with garlands. Oxen are similarly decorated with garlands around their horns, since this marks the first time that oxen can be led to pasture.
Another tradition common in Southern Germany is the Pfingstfeuer, which represents the Holy Spirit and the cleansing through the fire, as well as marking the end of winter. These different rites are a celebration of spring, an appeal for fertility and a good harvest. Even though the origins are pre-Christian, these kinds of celebrations can be found in almost all cultures, though the dates and the concrete customs vary.
One aspect that is different in Germany when compared to the U.S. is that in Germany, Pentecost is a federal holiday where all offices and stores are closed. This indicates how different the relationship between church and state is in Germany, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other. In Germany, the churches are under the care of the state and are strictly regulated. The churches pay taxes and all members of a congregation have to pay a certain amount of church tax that is automatically deducted from their salaries. In the U.S. however, religion is a strictly private matter, which explains why Pfingsten is not as visible in the public realm as it is in Germany and why German Americans favored secular festivals over religious ones in public.
Festivals of German-Americans
Image: courtesy of www.goethezeitportal.de