Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
At this time of year, as the first intimations of spring poke their way through the melting snow, Canadians are reminded that winter is not a life sentence and that in the not-too-distant future, we will be enjoying the warmth and freedom of summer. Unless, of course, you are one of those Canadians – the ones with jobs and children – for whom summer is less a respite and more a mathematical problem: how to reconcile a couple of weeks of vacation leave with the 10-week school-free drought.
It's also around this time of year that many parents, especially in Type A cities such as Toronto, have discovered that half the programs they planned to put their kids in this summer have already filled up, and are sending out entreaties to grandparents as work schedules get juggled and family calendars reorganized.
It's a shame. A holiday, as the Oxford English tells us, is "a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done." So why do we continue to desecrate them? Maybe we need to loosen our attachment to the industrious beaver and find our inner raccoon. Or, as we stumble headlong into the March Break, to consider a holiday-friendlier culture, of which there are many.
Take Germany. With the biggest economy in Europe and a GDP per capita on a par with Canada's, it can't be dismissed as decadent Old World, drowning in old art and soft cheese. Germans get a lot done, despite an average of 24 paid vacation days. That's more than twice Canadians' measly 10 days, which places our country close to the bottom of the World Bank's list, between China (6.7) and Papua New Guinea (11). Having lived in Germany for 12 years, I can testify to the ease with which one adjusts to this more generous holiday culture. But how to explain it?
When I moved to Berlin as a student in the late nineties, I lived with an East German couple in East Berlin. The wall had fallen nine years earlier, but you wouldn't have known it looking out our window, as the streetcar clanged down the cobblestone street and the coal-delivery man trundled his cart along the sidewalk.
Every Friday afternoon, my friends would bike up to the nearby Sport und Erholungszentrum (Sport and Recreation Centre), a spaceship of a building that had been a showpiece in the former East. Their routine, which I happily joined, was invariable: a half hour of strenuous lap-swimming followed by a frolic in the wave pool and then an extended session – naked – in the mixed-gender sauna and spa.
What intrigued me most about this ritual was the rigour with which my friends went about it; the Friday evening outing was both pleasurable and mandatory. I would argue that Germans approach holidays in much the same way: fun but also essential to an overall sense of balance.
Germany peppers its holidays throughout the year and the six breaks in the German school calendar are staggered across the country to avoid national rushes on the mountains or beaches. Their dates are set well in advance, so if, let's say, you live in Thuringia and are starting to think about Easter, 2024, you need only consult schulferien.org to find out when it falls. And then you may be pleased to discover that the break will be two weeks long. Germans know better than to assign one or two symbolic days to a holiday that encompasses Easter egg hunts, the baking of the Easter lamb, the traditional "Easter walk" (see Goethe's Faust for details), rural bonfires, family gatherings and maybe even a trip to church. That's before the quick trip to the Baltic coast or the Harz mountains for some fresh air.
Easter kicks off a pretty intense holiday season in Germany. I once worked for a New York director who made the mistake of trying to shoot a film in Berlin in the month of May. Every time she turned around, another holiday was coming at her. It didn't help that she couldn't pronounce any of their names – Pfingsten, Fronleichnam, Christi Himmelfahrt – nor that nobody could tell her what they meant. After all, these holidays have long since broken free of their Christian origins and become opportunities to enjoy the cherry blossoms, open patios and maybe a jaunt to the Polish Riviera. And if a holiday is stranded in the middle of the week, the Germans don't hesitate to build a bridge to the weekend, making May a month when, were it not for May 1, International Workers' Day – a holiday – one could forget about work entirely. The payoff is when you get back to it, work feels less like work and more a break from holidays.
Although I now live in Toronto, I've tried to retain some of the German spirit of holidaying – mainly by going there to do it. Every other summer, my kids and I return to the place of their birth and holiday among the Germans. And as we wedge ourselves onto pool decks and trains, line up city blocks for ice cream or try to find an unoccupied bush behind which to change, it occurs to me that Canada, too, has its merits. Maybe we just need more time to embrace them.