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Frankfurt am Main, Germany - Where Past Meets Present

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The Frankfurt Opera House.

Nowadays, most people associate Frankfurt with its airport, the book fair, the IAA (international car exhibition), and maybe the stock exchange. Probably few people will know that Frankfurt is a very old city, with the first settlement on the north bank of the river Main dating back a good 7,000 years. The imperial estate of Franconovurd, which was founded in about 500 AD, is first mentioned in a document from 794 AD.

Fairs, Banks and Stock Exchange

The right to hold an annual Autumn Fair was granted by Emperor Louis the German in the middle of the 9th Century and was first documented in 1150 (the right to hold an annual Spring Fair was granted in 1330). After his election as German King in 1152, Friedrich I nominated Frankfurt as the place for the election of future kings. This resulted in economic growth of the city. In 1240, Friedrich II granted visitors to Frankfurt Fairs a safe journey there and back home, making the town even more attractive.

The stock exchange has its roots in the Frankfurt Fairs - due to their popularity, Frankfurt had become very wealthy by the 16th Century, and was established as the centre of wholesale trade and banking. Soon, merchants saw the necessity of having standardised exchange rates, as the monetary system in the various principalities and small kingdoms had become unmanageable; and in 1585, fair merchants agreed on a standardised monetary system: the birth of today's stock exchange.

The oldest private bank in Germany which has been in family ownership continuously since its foundation in 1674 is the Metzler Bank in Frankfurt. Other famous bank houses were the Bethmann and the Rothschild Bank, neither of which still exists, but the names are still familiar to every Frankfurt citizen.

The first booksellers at a fair in Frankfurt were recorded in the year 1478, the printing of masses of books having been made possible by Johannes Gutenberg's invention of movable type printing some 30 years previously. From 1530 onwards, Frankfurt developed into the centre for printing and the book trade in Europe within a few decades.

The Frankfurt Book Fair (founded in 1949) is traditionally held over a five-day period every October, and is probably the largest and most important book fair in the world.

There are many fairs throughout the year. The traditional Dippemess1, having its roots in the Maamess2 as it was called in the 14th Century, is held in spring (usually including the Easter weekend) and in early autumn (mid-September) every year. It is now a huge fun fair, but there's still one section where you can buy Dippe and other goods.

No Commerce Without Food, Drink and Merriment

Where so many people gather for trade, there's a need for food, drink and entertainment, and Frankfurt has a lot to offer in that respect. Various traditions accompany the Frankfurters throughout the year.

It starts with the Dippemess in spring, closely followed by the traditional Green Sauce, made of the first fresh herbs harvested in the garden3 on Maundy Thursday. Next comes the Great Peal of Bells which you can listen to on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, which was first documented for 28 October, 1347, and involves, four times a year, the simultaneous ringing of the 50 bells in the ten city centre churches for about 30 minutes.

On the first Tuesday afternoon after Pentecost4, hordes of Frankfurters amuse themselves at the Wäldchestag5, a fair in the Frankfurter Stadtwald (municipal forest). The history of this tradition is not documented, so it can only be guessed how old it is and how it came about. There are two possible explanations:

Pentecost was when craftsmen in Frankfurt traditionally had big processions (during Frankfurt's period as a free city till 1729), in order to celebrate the beginning of a new administrative year. From 1 May on, the upper guild management started their term of office - reason enough for some prolonged merriment.

Another explanation dates back to the 13th Century: it was the custom to drive cattle to the pasture on the day after Pentecost; farm labourers and handmaidens used this opportunity to go along and refresh themselves with food and drink later.

Although ingesting pretzels and imbibing apple wine is certainly more pre-eminent in summer than in the other seasons, it's something that Frankfurters do throughout the year. There are no other old traditions until the Dippemess starts again in autumn6, which usually coincides with the season of Süßer, the first pressed juice from the freshly harvested apples. Customs like St Martin's processions or eating a goose on St Martin's Day on 11 November aren't confined to Frankfurt, nor is the Christmas Market, but the latter can be documented in Frankfurt as early as 1393.

Advent and Christmas Traditions

The huge Christmas tree that is nowadays put up as decoration for the Christmas market is a fairly recent addition; it has only been popular since the early 19th Century. Back then, the Christkindchesmarkt was reserved for Frankfurt merchants only; no strangers were admitted. The traded goods were crafts, toys, sweets and 'Christmassy' gifts. Originally, toys were mainly small wooden carts and Stoffbobbe (rag dolls). Later, wooden hobby horses and rocking horses were also sold. Until about 1880, it was the custom for Frankfurt parents to buy the toys for their children exclusively at the Christmas market. Another custom, which existed until about the beginning of the Second World War, was that pupils from the higher and private schools collected money and bought Nikolausriesen (St Nicholas giants) - these were gingerbread men which could be as much as two metres tall. They were given to the teachers as a gift, and shared afterwards.

Within the range of German Christmas cookies, Quetschemännchen7 and Bethmännchen8 are Frankfurt specialities with an age-old tradition. The former were sent by an admirer to the woman of his fancy. If she kept it, he was allowed to hope; if she sent it back, it was a clear 'No'. Various legends are connected with the Bethmännchen, a 'cookie' made of marzipan, and how they got their name. The most commonly accepted explanation is that they were created by the French chef of the Bethmann9 family in 1838, and originally had four almond halves (the almonds are cut vertically) - one half for each of the four sons, as decoration. When one of the sons died in 1845, one almond half was removed, so today's Bethmännchen are adorned by three almond halves. A lesser known story is that Napoleon Bonaparte stayed at the Bethmann's and, not knowing the name for the sweets, called for 'another Bethmännchen' thus giving them their name.

There is the great peal of bells on Christmas Eve, and one more custom: that of eating sauerkraut on New Year's Eve. The superstitious belief is that you'll never lack change in your wallet in the New Year if you eat sauerkraut on 31 December. It is not known how this superstition came about; maybe some desperate but clever housewife thought it up to make having a cheap but healthy food like sauerkraut more desirable than one such as lobster.

1Dippe is the Frankfurt dialect for pottery.2A medieval fair for household items, where potters from the regions nearby sold mainly their earthenware.3Nowadays, these herbs are cultivated in nurseries, and sold in shops and markets.4Pentecost is the Sunday seven weeks after Easter Sunday, and celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles.5Wäldche is the dialect word for 'kleiner Wald', meaning small forest; Tag means day.6Except for some traditions in the separate districts.7Quetsche is the dialect word for plums.8A sweet of marzipan, rosewater and white almonds.9Yes, the aforementioned bankers.

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