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“Life is a festival only to the wise,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote.
With over 10,000 German festivals, including some of the world’s biggest and strangest, Germany is certainly a place sagacious souls can appreciate. From the raucous parties of Karnival to the acclaimed Berlinale film festival to the famously merry Christmas markets, there’s something in Germany’s festival calendar to suit everyone’s tastes.
Some of the traditional German celebrations include Bayreuth’s Richard Wagner Festival, Munich’s restrained commemoration of beer, Oktoberfest, the world’s largest trade fair for books in Frankfurt and the Munich Opera Festival.
Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been a rapid expansion of new, more niche-market festivals in Germany. Night owls and museum geeks can revel together during Berlin’s Long Night of the Museums, an evening when the city’s museums and cultural institutions stay open into the wee hours. Fans of avant-garde film can fill their heads with new, esoteric anecdotes at Videonale, Bonn’s festival for art and experimental videos. Even secret Dungeons-and-Dragons-lovers can find a home at Bavaria’s medieval re-enactment festival Festival-Medieval.
Whether you’re just visiting Germany or have lived here for a while, attending a festival can be an easy and exciting way to discover German culture. To help get you started, here are some of the most important and interesting German festivals, carnivals, music, film, art and cultural events in Germany in 2014.
Festivals in Germany 2014
February: Berlin International film festival
The world’s second largest film festival after Cannes, the Berlinale draws together more than 19,000 film professionals from 115 countries. The festival showcases a wide variety of films, including big international movies, independent and art house productions, movies aimed at younger audiences, German productions and more experimental films.
Mid-February to April: Bonn Videonale festival
One of the world’s oldest video art festivals, both stars and up-and-coming young artists of the international video-art scene can be found there. Launched in 1984, the biennial Videonale today counts as one of the oldest and most renowned festivals of video art in the world.
The 40-day period before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins, is also Karneval season in Germany. It’s a time when the typically orderly Germans let loose and party. Parades, costume balls and other such festivities take place throughout the country, often varying widely according to local traditions.
Mid-March: Long night of the museums
From its beginning in 1997, almost all of the city’s 180 museums and memorials have taken part in the long night. Each event offers a different combination of museums and a new programme, with ever more museums and initiatives joining in, such that visitors are guaranteed a diverse experience and new discoveries every time.
Mid-March: Leipzig Book Fair
The Leipzig fair is Europe’s biggest festival of literature and features more than 2,600 events held at 350 difference venues. An ideal communication platform, the Leipzig Book Fair provides extensive information about new publications as well as current and future trends in the German speaking and European markets. Always popular, the festival attracted some 163,500 visitors in 2012.
The Thuringia Bach festival specialises in Baroque music and performing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach in authentic sites. The festival appeals to music lovers and tourists alike.
Mid-May: International Dixieland Festival Dresden
Many a saintly visitor goes marching into Dresden in early May to check out the city's festival of Dixieland and early jazz music. Known particularly for its open-air events on the Elbe River, the festival boasts over 350 artists every year; this year is its 43rd. Don't forget to drop by the Dixie parade and to catch a show by one of the city’s many street performers!
July: International Africa festival
During this unique festival in Tubingen near Stuttgart, African artists and bands perform modern and traditional music and dance from their home countries. There is also a market with African crafts and works of art. You can also catch the Africa Festival Wurzburg, which starts at the end of May and is one of the largest festivals in Europe for African music and culture.
June–July: Munich Opera festival
Held every year at the Bayerische Staatsoper (the Bavarian State Opera), the festival consists mainly of shows staged during the past year and always concludes with a piece by Wagner.
July–August: Richard Wagner Festival (Bayreuth festival)
The month-long Bayreuth Festival is held annually in the Bavarian town of the same name. Wagner himself oversaw the construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the theatre where concerts from the composer have been performed since 1876.
The Festival-Mediaval is a living history and re-enactment festival in Selb. The event includes performances of medieval music, fire shows, roaming performers such as witches and beggars, theatre groups and a medieval market. If you've ever had a hankering to try your hand at archery while munching on a medieval snack, then this festival is for you.
September to early October: Oktoberfest
One of Germany’s most famous festivities and the world’s largest fair, Oktoberfest is a 15-day celebration of Bavarian beer. Over six million people come every year to drink beer, eat chicken legs and pork sausages and engage in general revelry.
October: Frankfurt book fair
The history of world's largest trade fair for books dates all the way back to 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg first invented movable type just a few kilometres away from Frankfurt. Soon after, local booksellers held the first book fair. The Frankfurt fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse) is now primarily for people in the industries surrounding books, although it does have some more layman-accessible events, such as its award for the oddest book title of the year.
11 November: St. Martin’s day
St. Martin’s Day is the feast day of Martin of Tours, who began his life as a Roman soldier and ended up a monk. St. Martin’s most famous deed is that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm, thereby saving the beggar’s life. That night, Martin dreamed that the beggar he had helped was Jesus.
On St. Martin’s Day, which is celebrated in many areas in Germany, children go from house to house with paper lanterns and candles and sing songs about St. Martin in return for treats. Many places also have public festivals to celebrate the saint that include re-enactments of St. Martin’s donation of his cloak and the serving of the traditional dish of roast goose, or Martinsgans.
December: Christmas Markets (Weihnachtsmarkts)
Nearly every German city and village sets up a Christmas market during the Advent season. Giving you a reason to brace the cold, visitors can ride a Ferris wheel, browse through the stands selling handicrafts, wooden toys and ceramics, sample the hot mulled wine (glühwein) and hot chestnuts or just absorb the merry atmosphere. These fairs have proven so popular that other countries have started copying the German-Austrian tradition. Notable Christmas markets are in Berlin, Munich, Nuremberg, Lubeck, Munster, Stuttgart and Heidelberg.
Read more on Europe's top festivals:
Thumbnail credit: Andre Kiwitz.
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