Thank God the Germans don't work any longer

Hard working Germans are soaking up the sun today after another arduous week at the furnaces of their miracle economy. It had been a tough three days. On Wednesday afternoon, they clocked off early, packed the kids into the car, and headed out towards their holiday destinations, only to be snarled up in traffic jams a few miles out of town. Tens of millions of others had had the same idea.

The occasion was Corpus Christi, a red-letter day for Catholics, which in the new spirit of tolerance Protestants are also prepared to observe. And if one is to show real devotion, one must not insist on working the usual four or five hours on Friday. So most Germans decided to use their free time efficiently, combining their religious duties with a quick getaway.

They had had a test run the previous week, when Whit Monday locked them out of the factory. And less than two weeks before that, they were on the road for another four days, celebrating Ascension.

Germans may not seem very Catholic to outsiders, but when it comes to religious festivities, they outdo most Latins in their fervour. As southern Europe manages to work through the festivals of its faith, Germany comes to a grinding halt. Offices become deserted, assembly lines shut down and, if the sun is out, traffic on the unrestricted autobahns slows to a snail's pace.

Studious observance of religious festivals goes back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, when the country was in effect carved up into a multitude of pockets along denominational lines. Regions ruled by the austere Lutherans did rather badly out of the deal, and up to this day Protestant Lander tend to work while their former enemies play.

Catholic Rhineland, for instance, makes quite a meal out of Lent, forcing citizens to engage in a week of eating, drinking and merry-making around Shrove Tuesday. That custom is mirrored in the south, but Bavaria goes one better in the autumn with its Oktoberfest.

In recent years, strangely coinciding with declining interests in spiritual matters, religious holidays have proliferated. Though there is no evidence of any underhand proselytising, counter-reformation seems to be in full swing. Protestant regions are rediscovering the customs of the old faith, at least as far as days off work are concerned.

Thus Frankfurt's business district, once driven by the Protestant work ethic, is now governed by the sacred days of Rome. Plus a few more, such as Woodman's Day, to allow workers to recuperate from Ascension by taking a stroll in the city's green belt.

The religious war is being conducted by the notoriously work-shy civil servants of Catholic Bonn. To them Papist festivals are sacrosanct, but last year they withdrew national recognition from the only specifically Protestant holiday, the Day of Prayer and Atonement. The decision drew angry sermons up and down the country about the nation's moral decay, but to no avail. The government said it needed the money for financing nursing care.

Then there are the Kuren - "the cure", an institution that amounts to state-subsidised frolicking in spas, to the delight of divorce lawyers. At the moment, all Germans are entitled to the Kuren every three years, but under the government's austerity programme, the Kuren will only be available once every four years. Life is really getting hard.

As the budget strains to keep pace with Germans' insatiable Wanderlust, even Catholic days of prayer and sunbathing may come under attack. But there is no danger of Germans turning into a nation of workaholics. Annual leave can amount to nine weeks, and sick leave, at more than 20 days a year, is among the highest in the world. All the more depressing then, that the bone-idle Germans somehow manage to have a more successful economy than ours.

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