Goethe’s Birthday

A look back at a long tradition

The history of celebrating birthdays can be traced back to the 4th century BC. About eight hundred years later in the 4th century AD, the early Catholic church adopted this heathen festival for its own purposes. In the 17th century, the ancient custom witnessed a renaissance in Europe when festivals were staged in honour of the rulers’ birthdays. It took another 100 years until the bourgeoisie began celebrating birthdays within the family. It is no coincidence – from a cultural-historical perspective – that the growing self-confidence of middle-class society was closely tied to the commemoration of individual birthdays.

Goethe’s birthday during his lifetime

Goethe’s life exemplifies this process of change. Growing up in Frankfurt, his parents never celebrated birthdays in a big way. On one occasion, he was given a birthday pretzel. In 1759, Goethe received a pair of black trousers, and on his 12th birthday in 1761, a pair of new shoes and a silver rapier. It wasn’t until he was 15, a student in Leipzig, that he invited friends to celebrate his birthday with him. It was a tradition that Goethe kept for the rest of life – at the end of the year, he would take stock of his life, consciously decide to try something new, examine the prudence of his habits and change course if necessary. That’s why on 28 August 1808, he resolved to start writing Poetry and Truth, and in September 1831, expressed his determination to complete his “Faust” epic before his birthday in 1832. Interestingly, the protagonist of his epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther shares his birthday. In the more than 50 years he lived in Weimar since 1775, the 28th of August was always a very special day for it was then he tallied the “sum of his existence” as he formulated it in his famous letter to Schiller on 23 August 1794.

The older Goethe became, the more he avoided boisterous social gatherings on his birthday, preferring solitude instead, for example in 1805 in Bad Lauchstädt. In the “Tag- und Jahresheften” (Daily and Annual Bulletins) of 1817, he claimed that he had always liked to celebrate his birthday quietly. The Weimar court began the tradition of celebrating Goethe’s birthday rather late – in 1781. On 28 August 1787, a small birthday party was held at the Gartenhaus despite Goethe’s absence – he was in Italy at the time – which Schiller also attended. Schiller described the event to his friend Körner in Dresden in sarcastic terms, recalling “We ate to our heart’s content and I drank Rhine wine to Goethe’s health.” The custom of giving gifts also became increasingly established; quite a few valuable items found their way into Goethe’s collections in this manner.

On the occasion of Goethe’s 80th birthday in 1829, lavish parties were organised by friends and admirers in Dresden, Leipzig, Weimar and Frankfurt am Main. Since 1819, admirers of Goethe in many German towns and cities started cultivating the custom of staging festivals to celebrate the poet’s birthday.

After Goethe's passing

National commemorative events took place during the 19th and 20th century, particularly marking the 100th anniversary of Goethe’s birth in 1859 and the 100th anniversary of his death in 1932. Legendary speeches were held, most notably by Thomas Mann in 1932.

The National Research and Memorial Sites of Classic German Literature in Weimar (NFG), founded in 1953, began its own tradition of throwing an opulent three-day festival in Goethe’s courtyard garden at Frauenplan. Each evening, some 400 guests were treated to a small musical or theatrical performance related to Goethe before the romantic, starry-skied August evening drew to a close – weather permitting. What made the event special was the chance for the NFG staff to present the Goethe Residence in candlelight to “their” guests and – to a certain extent – show off the fruits of their hard work.

After the Klassik Stiftung Weimar was founded, the concept of celebrating Goethe’s birthday underwent a series of changes. The tradition of staging the party in the garden of the Goethe Residence continued for a few more years. Today Goethe’s birthday is celebrated in the elegant ambience of the Roman House in the Park on the Ilm, and is open to all, young and old.

Goethe Birthday Festival in 2019

This year the Klassik Stiftung Weimar will mark Goethe’s anniversary with two days of festivities starting on 27 August. In addition to readings and theatre performances, cultural enthusiasts and Goethe fans can look forward to the opening of the special exhibition “Adventures in Reason” at the Schiller Museum.

More information on this year’s Goethe Birthday Festival will be published soon.

27 August  2019, 7 pm — 28 August  2019, 1 am

Schiller Museum and Wittumspalais inner courtyard

admission free

Projects of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar are funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Free State of Thuringia, represented by the State Chancellery of Thuringia, Department of Culture and the Arts.

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