On my first walk through our new neighbourhood I noticed black stickers with chalk writing on a number of doors. I paid closer attention on subsequent walks and started noticing actual chalk on doorways as well.
Algebra on door frames? A complicated census system? A formula for garbage pick-up?
Given that Lent had just begun and I hadn’t noticed anything like this before, I theorized that the markings had something to do with Easter. A bit of research revealed that I was right about their religious nature, but wrong about the occasion.
The chalk markings are a traditional Catholic house blessing in Germany done around Epiphany (6 January) every year. The digits represent the year to come (2014 in the picture at top left) and the letters stand for either the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house) or names of the three wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar). The mathematical operators have folkloric meaning as well: the multiplication sign or asterisk (*) is for the Star of Bethlehem and the plus symbols (+++) represent the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
While the majority of doorways in our neighbourhood are unmarked, there are sizable number that have been chalked and some even have long lists from previous years. It’s clear that Neuss is more Catholic (or at least more into chalk and blessings!) than Berlin as there’s a whole set of traditions around Epiphany that we didn’t see any trace of in Germany’s more secular capital.
Learning about local traditions like this is one of the reasons that my husband and I wanted to live in different regions of Germany. Exploring a different country from a less-tourist perspective was a motivating factor for starting this adventure and it’s fantastic when those explorations lead to a little more understanding of local customs.
And with Easter just around the corner, who knows what other new-to-us traditions will pop up!