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Germany’s True Fifth Season

In Germany, the official fifth season is anything to do with Karneval, a few days of drunken spring debauchery that used to have religious undertones and a smattering of royal bashing. These days it’s just drunken debauchery. I’m not being glib because we have a similar party in the U.S.: It’s called college. But Germans love the fifth season because it’s when the rules allow them to be silly and unrestrained. Note the irony in being silly and unrestrained only when the rules allow. Germans don’t see that irony. They love Karneval.

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But it’s not the real fifth season in Germany. Not in a real season sense. The real fifth season occurs in that no-man’s-land between Christmas and New Year’s. You’ve always quietly felt that the year ends shortly after all the Christmas presents are open and the new year doesn’t get going until that first feeling of dread back at your desk. The Germans have always known that it’s actually a different season and they’ve even given it a name: Zwischen den Jahren. Between the years. It’s one of my favorite sayings because it’s so perfectly right, in a German precision kind of way (but without faking the emission tests). It’s not this year and it’s not next year: It’s between the years.

Perfect.

Unfortunately my second least favorite German phrase always rears its head between the years, refusing to leave, like a subterranean worm in Tremors. “Guten Rutsch!”, or have a good slide! We all assume a good slide into next year but without a direct object in that sentence it’s hard to know. Germans love it as a parting phrase between the years – on the phone, at the counter and, with a wink of the eye, while putting you under for a colonoscopy. There’s an apocryphal story that it comes from Yiddish which, like the definition of apocryphal, may or may not be true.

I’d love to end on an upbeat comment about Zwischen den Jahren but the only remaining footnote is a negative: Karneval follows just a few weeks after Zwischen den Jahren.

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