Cabbage and Christmas: What the French and Germans really think of each other

From baguettes to Birkenstocks, clichés on France and Germany die hard, even as the two countries celebrate 60 years since the post-war treaty establishing friendship between the two European giants after decades of rivalries and conflict.

Cabbage and Christmas: What the French and Germans really think of each other

On the occasion of six decades marking the signing of the Elysée Treaty, AFP spoke to some Franco-German couples about their culture clashes on everything from food to Christmas.

Bread and cheese

The French national obsession with the baguette – recently elevated to UNESCO world heritage status – can be hard for Germans to comprehend.    

The omnipresence of the elongated bread at mealtimes is a source of consternation for Verena von Derschau, born in Germany and married to a Frenchman.

“It doesn’t even get eaten! It just ends up as crumbs by the plate,” she says.

Reader question: How many baguettes does the average French person eat per day?

By contrast, pungent cheese and other sources of French gastronomic pride can lead to a certain hauteur vis-a-vis other cuisines, with fingers pointed notably at Germany’s love of potatoes and cabbage.

François Dumas, a Parisian who lives with his German partner, winces at the idea of some Teutonic preparations such as Maultaschen, a meat-filled dumpling usually served with broth.

“I give up there!” he says.

Comfortable shoes

While Birkenstocks now belong to the same stable of luxury brands as Louis Vuitton, the cork-soled sandals – on occasion sported with socks – remain emblematic of the German love of practical clothing.

“Germans dress like sacks, always comfort first,” says Roland, a Frenchman in a bi-national couple for years.


Meanwhile, in France it is children who suffer discomfort in the country’s strict school system. “I feel sorry for them, they have such long days,” in contrast to the German pupils who often have the afternoon free, Julika Herzog says.

Technology and trains

When the family is on holiday in Germany, it is her husband’s turn to complain. “There’s nowhere you can pay with card,” François Dumas says.

“And the trains are always late,” he says, the opposite of the German efficiency many expect.

Bells and bunnies

Festivals reveal yet more differences. The relative absence of the Easter Bunny in France was a surprise to Verena von Derschau. Instead, “they have bells”, she says, puzzled by the images of a winged bell bringing goodies to children during the spring holiday.

Flying bells and a giant omelette – how the French celebrate Easter

Christmas follows a different rhythm on either side of the border, too, with the French dressing up their trees early in December, while many Germans wait until Christmas Eve.

Germans also lean towards a more sober tree decoration, says Verena von Derschau, who has banned blinking fairy lights in her household.

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Why is Ascension Day a public holiday in France?

Thursday May 18th marks the Christian feast of Ascension - which means a day off work and a chance to 'faire le pont'. But why is it a public holiday in France?

Why is Ascension Day a public holiday in France?

This year Thursday, May 18th marks Ascension, making this a three-day week for the many workers in France who take the opportunity to ‘do the bridge’ and create a nice long weekend.

The festival, which Christians believe marks the day that Jesus ascended into heaven, is always 40 days after Easter Sunday, which means that its exact date varies from year to year.

READ ALSO Why 2023 (especially May) is a very good year for holidays in France

But why does France give people a day off work on this day?

Ascension is actually a holiday in quite a few European countries – Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Nordic countries get a day off, although Spain, Italy and the UK do not.

This is one of France’s oldest public holidays, stretching all the way back to the Ancien régime – the period before the revolution of 1792 – when it would be widely celebrated as a Christian holiday in the French countryside.

After the Revolution, the new government tried to do away with all religious holidays and replace them with secular ones. As well as their most famous act of toppling the monarchy, France’s first revolutionary government introduced all sorts of changes to everyday life. Some of these – like the switch to metric measurements – stuck, while others (like renaming the months of the year and introducing a new calendar) were swiftly abandoned.

The idea of losing a day’s holiday went down about as well as you would expect and in 1801 Napoleon signed a Concordat which re-instated the biggest festivals of the Christian calendar as public holidays; Christmas, Easter, Ascension, All Saints Day and Assumption (the August 25th festival which marks the day that the Virgin Mary died and ascended into heaven).

Since then the holiday calendar has been regularly reorganised and altered by the ‘big five’ of the Christian festivals remain holidays. Several secular holidays have also been added to the calendar – including the Fête nationale on July 14th, marking the storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French revolution, plus days to make the end of WWI (November 11th) and WWII in Europe (May 8th).   

READ ALSO Will May 8th remain a public holiday in France?

Although there are church services dedicated to Ascension, you won’t see religious parades or other big events, and all in all this is one of the more low-key holidays of the year. 

The question of why France, as a legally secular country that has a strict separation between religion and government, marks Christian holidays is one often asked by foreigners. The answer seems to be simple pragmatism – no government has been willing to risk the wrath of the French by telling them they must forgo their days off work. 

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?