Monday, November 20, 2017

Kirmes Celebration

Saint Laurentius Church in Zerf

Saint Wendalinus Church in Oberzerf

What is Kirmes?  Growing up in Calumet County in eastern Wisconsin, I seldom heard the word "Kirmes" until I began my first librarian job in the public library in Green Bay.  People there knew it as a yearly celebration in two smaller towns to the north, Brussels and Luxemburg, obviously originally settled by people from Belgium and Luxembourg.

It was quite a surprise when my research on my ancestors' Rhineland culture and customs told me there were Kirmes celebrations in my ancestors' villages of Zerf/Oberzerf, Irsch, and Serrig as well as almost every village in Kreis Saarburg.  Considering the proximity of this part of the Rhineland to the borders of the small country of Luxembourg, I realized it was not surprising to find that my ancestors' part of the German State of Rheinland Pfalz,  I began to look for a description of how the villagers celebrated a Kirmes in my 2nd great grandmother's time.

Cover, House of Johann
I began each chapter of House of Johann, my historical novel with a cultural or historical background paragraph to help explain the lives of the family of Johann Rauls my 3rd great-grandfather. and his family.  It was meant to help the reader understand the events in each chapter.  

Here is some of the material I used to write that paragraph plugged into such a paragraph.

Chapter 19 - Kirmes Celebration – October 1845
One of the nicest celebrations of the year was the Kirmes (Church fair). It was an opportunity to once again see friends and relatives, for feasting and for high-spirited dancing and celebrating.  The wife of the house cleaned everything to a high luster: the walls of the kitchen were freshly whitewashed; windows and floors cleaned spotless; the copper polished and the furniture washed down. The husband thoroughly cleaned stalls, stables, and farmyard and moved the manure pile out of the area.* The Kirmes guests arrived on foot or by wagon. They were all dressed in their Sunday finery. The table in the 'Stube' was laden with good food, there was lively conversation and everyone felt refreshed and happy with life". 
Not all of the information I found would fit into one paragraph.  Here is a bit more about he Kirmes festival.  The celebration was closely tied to the villager's religion and the Catholic church of the village.  It was celebrated on the Sunday closest to the feast day of the church''s patron saint.  In the case of Oberzerf, location of the house of Johann Rauls for instance, the celebration was on the October Sunday closest to the feast Saint Wendalinus.   In nearby Zerf Kirmes was celebrated in August, on the Sunday that was closest to the feast of Saint Laurentius.

As I wrote in the Chapter 19 introduction, Saturday was an important part of the Kirmes festival.  There was no celebrating on this day.  Everyone worked from morning to night in preparation for visitors on the next day.

The Kirmes meal was served in the sparkling clean Stube; the table full of the special foods which had been planned for and partially prepared on the day before.  Family and friends sat down at a typical dinner feast such as a large ham, potatoes, and sauerkraut, with wine or Viez to drink; then perhaps a small Schnapps to aid the digestion.

The young were especially anxious to make their way to the church grounds for their customary competition.  A common type of contest was a bowling match with a fat goose as a prize.  By late afternoon, music for dancing began, often continuing to the early hours of Monday.  This was what the young men and girls had been awaiting and while older couples also enjoyed the dancing, it was the young ones who seemed never to tire and danced into the early morning hours.

Some of the guests who had traveled to attend the village Kirmes left in the evening or stayed overnight with family or friends who lived in the Kirmes village.  Before anyone left for home, the women of the house would present, wrapped in a clean napkin, a small packet of food from the Kirmes dinner for the guests who were leaving and also for any one of their family had not been able to come to the Kirmes celebration.

I' come from a small Wisconsin village and remember the "Church Picnic" held in summer each year.  Our Wisconsin Village of Sherwood near Appleton was probably 90% German at that time, almost 100 per cent Catholic, and surrounded by outlying farms whose resident made up a major part of the church congregation. There were beer, hamburger/brat, and ice cream stands, a church social dinner with three or even four repeat settings, games kids could play, and the music of a polka band.  Our relatives and friends from nearby townships or cities sometimes joined us.  It's very possible that those church picnics descended (with quite a bit of Americanization) from the Kirmes celebrations so common in the villages of Kreis Saarburg in the nineteenth century.

*(In case you were wondering, the manure pile usually was usually kept in the front of the house barn.  The explanation for what to us seems unusual was a matter of convenience since all of the barn doors, just like the house doors, opened to the wide street which was already littered with dung from the horses or oxen that trod  on it on raw way to distant fields.  A farmer's fields did not surround his house)

Ollinger, Josef,  Geschichten und Sagen von Saar und Mosel
Morette, Jean, "Landleben im Jahreslauf"
Croon, Maria, "Die Dorfstrasse."


  1. Thank you, Kathy, for sharing all this information. I am reading your blog posts and also starting to read your book which I recently purchased. You have done a great service to those learning about their German ancestry. Danke, danke, danke. Curtis Loesch

  2. Danke Curtis, for your words of appreciation for this blog. I am so pleased that you feel it has the potential to help you and others who have always wanted to know more about family life in the small villages of Germany. Kathi