One of the most enduring myths about German culture is that it values hard work over a good siesta.
Northern Europeans, so they say, have a “Protestant work ethic” that means they get the job done even if it means staying late at work, while the southern Europeans wave it off with a mañana, mañana.
But have you ever tried calling a German office at one minute past five? When German workers say Ich mach’ Feierabend (“I am calling it a day”), it rarely carries an apologetic undertone but usually comes with the confidence of someone claiming an ancient right.
Dating back to the 16th century, the term Feierabend, or “celebration evening”, used to denote the evening before a public holiday, but has come to refer to the free time between leaving the office and bedtime on any working day.
The key to understanding Feierabend is that it isn’t time for going to the cinema or gym, but time for doing nothing. In 1880, the cultural historian Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl described the concept as “an atmosphere of carefree wellbeing, of deep inner reconciliation, of the pure and clear quiet of the evening”.
Germany’s adherence to the Feierabend rulebook can frustrate when you are trying to make a work call on a Friday afternoon or buy an aspirin from a pharmacy on a Sunday (Sundays being a 24-hour celebration evening).
But as a philosophy, it underpins the proudest achievements of the German labour movement and may just explain why the country has some of the highest productivity levels in Europe: to truly cherish the evening, you make sure you get the job done before five o’clock.