Traditions in Bremen
Of knipp and caviar, tiny tailors and hard-working mariners
Our city's long history has given rise to many traditions. Some are rather curious, some will tempt your tastebuds, but all are typically Bremen.
Fifteen dignitaries dressed to the nines in top hat and tails and a tailor weighing exactly 99 pounds. These are the main protagonists in one of the many curious traditions in Bremen – the ice wager. Every year on 6 January at 12 noon on the dot, hundreds of spectators gather on the Punkendeich embankment below the Kunsthalle art gallery. They are there to watch the dignitaries and the 'tailor' test the Weser river to see if it can be walked on. Is the river 'going' or 'staying', i.e. is it flowing or frozen over? To prove which is the case, the tailor holding a red-hot iron has to walk from one side of the river to the other without getting wet.
But because the Weser has not frozen over since 1946, the tailor is now ferried across the water in a lifeboat provided by the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (GMSRS). This makes the outcome of the wager rather predictable, of course, so it's now decided by the luck of the draw. The losers have to foot the bill for the charity banquet that follows, which is held in aid of the GMSRS.
The Schaffermahl or 'mariners' meal' is a proud Bremen tradition and the world's oldest annual fraternal banquet. First held in 1545 as a farewell dinner for mariners and merchants who had spent the long winter months with their families, it now doubles as a charity fundraiser for the 'Haus Seefahrt' foundation. The Schaffermahl takes the form of a five-hour event that is full of rituals. The order in which the drinks and dishes are served is just as strictly set out as the order in which the speeches are made between courses.
The banquet is arranged and financed by the schaffer, three members of the 'Haus Seefahrt' association who have a business background and who must stand for re-election each year. It's a great honour – just as it is to be invited to the Schaffermahl. For most people, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, however the Mayor of Bremen is always in attendance and some VIP guests such as former German President Horst Köhler have twice received invitations. For a long time – as is still the case with the ice wager – no women were allowed, although they are now permitted in the company of men. In 2007, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first female guest of honour. Women take their meal in a separate function room from the invited guests. Afterwards, everyone joins together to dance.
An even quainter tradition are the cabbage tours, a popular Bremen pastime in the first few weeks of January. The essential piece of equipment is the handcart. This is mainly used to transport spirits and schnapps for the journey. Many of the cabbage walkers take their drinks from shot glasses, which they tie around their neck with string. The idea is to work up an appetite so you can really stuff yourself during the post-walk meal of cabbage and other specialities.
Sweeping the cathedral steps
At all times of year, young men with schnapps glasses can be seen in the heart of the city centre on Bremen's cathedral steps. One of the group will be sweeping the steps – using a broom or even a tiny toothbrush. According to one Bremen custom, an unmarried man has to sweep the steps leading up to the main cathedral door on his 30th birthday. His friends make sure there are enough bottle caps or other rubbish for him to clear. The event is often announced in the local paper, is accompanied by barrel organ music and lasts for as long as it takes for a maiden to be found who can kiss the bachelor and free him from his ignominious work.
The tradition is thought to originate from the once commonly held belief that people who don't bear children are condemned to toil in obscurity after their death. Girls don't get off lightly though: those who reach the age of 30 having never been a bride must clean the handles of the cathedral doors!
A favourite Christmas custom for the little ones: on the evening of St Nicholas' Day on 6 December, in Bremen and all over northern Germany, children dress up and go round houses and shops asking for bonschen (bonbons). The Nikolauslaufen, also known as the Sunnerklauslaufen, probably dates back to a Catholic tradition, in which pupils of the cathedral and abbey schools asked for modest donations during processions.
On the subject of children, visitors should not think that locals in Bremen have been badly brought up if they see the occasional person spitting. This is just an old tradition. When people in Bremen leave their home city, they spit in the Weser river for luck – it's a kind of bond ensuring that they'll definitely come back!
The act of spitting has another meaning entirely on Bremen's cathedral square. On the northern side of the cathedral, a 'spitting stone' is set into the pavement on the exact spot where Gesche Gottfried was beheaded in 1831 – the last public execution to take place in Bremen. Gesche Gottfried was a serial poisoner who killed her victims with arsenic. Even today, the people of Bremen still convey their disgust at her deeds by spitting at the stone. Interestingly, brave opponents of the Third Reich scratched a swastika into the stone in the run-up to the Second World War. It didn't take long for this to be noticed, however, and the stone was removed and reset several years later after being polished.