I know that Mothers’ Day is coming up soon, but I thought any special day was an occasion to talk about the infamous German version of Fathers’ Day. McCurry came face to face with this celebration when he decided to take a walk on a bright, balmy day in May. I’ll let him describe what, in a way, is indescribable.
Day dreaming, McCurry was startled when he nearly tripped over a man passed out on the sidewalk. He came up short and was surprised to see people just walking around the prone figure – or, in many cases, McCurry observed, stumbling around him. When he reached the man, he started to kneel down to see if he could be of help. The overpowering smell of beer, however, made him realize the only thing this fellow needed was a strong pot of coffee.
“Don’t worry about him,” a passerby said to McCurry, “he’s just enjoying his Vatertag.”
Vatertag, McCurry knew, translated literally to father day, or, he assumed, Father’s Day. He hadn’t thought much about how other cultures celebrated dates like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day … if indeed they did at all. He was about to be introduced to a bad case of culture shock. Vatertag, he would learn, was one cultural phenomenon his instructors in Monterey had failed to mention.
As he headed up Brandenburgische Strasse approaching the Ku’damm, the number of local bars and pubs increased as did the incidences of public drunkenness. Had all of Berlin gone mad? he wondered.
Groups of older men with what were probably their sons came lumbering out of the bars, arms linked and loudly singing drinking songs. Often one or more stumbled to his knees, with the others dragging them back to their feet. They were going back and forth from bar to bar. At one point, McCurry watched as one group, with a member too drunk to make it any further, laid their nearly comatose comrade out on a roadside bench.
The words of the famous German drinking song floated on the gentle spring air: “Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit.” Gemütlichkeit was one of the few German words that McCurry wished had an English equivalent. It is a state of mind more than a word. Good company enjoyed in the confines of a warm, cozy atmosphere probably best described how McCurry would explain it. Others might have similar but different descriptions of the word. Thus “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit” means, basically, a toast to good company and good cheer. And there was a lot of that going around.
One group tried to drag him into their traveling party. After sharing one of the beers being passed around and singing a verse of “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit” with them, McCurry bowed out as graciously as he could.
He decided to catch a bus and visit Horst Wachter. Wachter lived in the Charlottenburg section of the city. While he worried about what he might encounter on a bus, the short trip was relatively peaceful. Apparently all the revelry was confined to the streets.
Wachter was outside his flat and saw McCurry approaching on foot. “What the hell you doing out here?” he asked.
“Nice greeting. What was I supposed to do, call ahead and ask permission to visit?
“What the fuck’s going on, Horst?” McCurry asked as they started entering his apartment. “I thought it would be a nice day for a walk, but it appears that all of Berlin has gone totally nuts.”
Wachter laughed and said, “You mean Vatertag? This is one day where, unless you are part of the drunken mobs going from bar to bar, it’s best to stay inside.”
“You mean Father’s Day here is just an excuse to go out and get drunk?” McCurry asked.
Wachter explained that, at one time, Father’s Day was set aside to honor God, the father of everyone. It was marked with parades and other public celebrations. Over time, it transformed into a version of that celebrated in America, a day to honor a person’s father.
“Eventually, however, Germans being German, it was changed into what could best be described as a ‘booze day.’ It’s basically a boys’ night out, although the ‘night’ starts quite early, as you have seen.”
In the city, Wachter explained, fathers and sons band together, make a lot of noise and travel from bar to bar. Many will also travel to a rural or scenic area, such as the Grunewald, where large groups gather around kegs of beer and attempt to sing all the old German drinking songs.
“So in essence, it is group insanity,” McCurry said.
“I guess so,” Wachter answered, “but if you want to join in, it actually is quite a blast.”
To be perfectly honest, I never did find out how the Germans celebrated Mothers’ Day.