Sitting an exam on New Year’s Day: Newcomers wax lyrical about the German academic calendar

Italian cookies complemented the first Christmas experience in December (Photographer Marina Ivanova)

The time allocated to work and leisure in Germany is often a rude awakening for numerous incoming international students. There are but a few national holidays, for the different German states set their own holidays. Apart from this and of course the quiet Sundays, the different semester starts are a new experience for exchange or new Master’s students who are coming from a different educational system. So once we international students encounter the new calendar we are to follow, there is always an unsettling feeling when we compare our current state to that of our family and friends back home and when we contrast our activities to what we would be doing if we were at home.

The first major difference that can be felt is the overall “late” winter semester in Germany. In the middle of October, numerous universities abroad have already started teaching, so students in Germany get to happily enjoy an additional few weeks of summer break… until the extra month of study in January. Some of my friends have shared similar experiences.

Kateryna Kazyk, an English Studies Master’s student from Ukraine, recounted that:

“The holiday breaks here are shorter compared to Ukraine. I had a break each winter that lasted almost a month (it was mostly in January because most of the holidays fall exactly in this month). Unlike in Germany, we start our term in September and end it in May; the summer break was also something that I had to get used to.”

She also marvelled at her experience of holidays in Germany and the new perspective they have given her:

“In Ukraine we start our Christmas celebration on the 7th of January. Then, on the 14th of January we greet the Old/Orthodox New Year. So, we basically have two calendars: the Julian and the Gregorian, two New Year celebrations and an array of other holidays, especially during the winter break. Generally, I have also noticed that the celebratory atmosphere [in Germany] differs from that at home. Here it is more festive and can be felt at the end of November with all the decorations and shop windows displaying holiday items. This increases the mood and the anticipation. In Ukraine, though we have more holidays, the sheer joy and festive mood is less pronounced, I would say.”

I got to celebrate two Christmases and two New Year’s Eves with Marketa, Yang and Roman (Photographer Constanze Friedrich)

Similarly, other religious holidays and even New Year’s celebrations differ, as I have recounted concerning the Bengali tradition. My colleagues and I got to experience this when we organised and welcomed the Chinese New Year on the 5th of February. Yes, unlike many lucky cultures who get to blissfully sleep in the day after a big night, the Chinese major festival was at the beginning of the TU Chemnitz examination period. Some participants were coming from stressful oral exams on the same day; others’ exams were still around the corner. But the rich decorations, live music and traditional crafts and games immersed us all in the festive spirit of the Year of the Pig.

Differences can be felt not only in the time cultures celebrate, but also in the way they do it. Ming Yan, an exchange student of English Studies from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China opines:

“After coming to Germany I noticed that Germany and China have something in common in that, family reunions go hand-in-hand with celebrating. All the same, there are still some subtle differences. For example, in Germany the public seem to enjoy the happy Christmas atmosphere throughout Advent, while in China people tend to celebrate the Spring Festival in a set manner, with certain dates to do certain things. As an exchange student, celebrating the delightful moments from both sides is enjoyable, yet sometimes these occasions make me miss home more than usual.”

When living abroad, the different time organisation is one of the cultural shocks to get used to. It may take some time and a willing mind-set to adapt to it, but when we do, we will feel more comfortable in our new home.

I hope you manage to eliminate all distractions during the exam period!

Good luck!


(Master English & American Studies, b3rd semester)

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