Lately, I’ve been really fascinated by the traditions of Christmas in Germany. From the festive markets to the beautiful decor, Germany really lights up Christmas.
In a way, I feel like it is the true home of the Christmas tradition. So, I reached out to one of my German readers, the writer of Random Poison, and asked her about the traditions in her native homeland.
She was nice enough to write us a guest post on the traditions throughout the season. I became immediately interested in the similarities between Christmas in Germany and Christmas in the U.S., but even more, intrigued by the differences.
I would like to share with you her post. It is about as warm and fuzzy as Christmas can get. In fact, it has inspired me to start sharing some of these traditions with my own family.
Christmas in Germany with Traditional Celebrations
“Frohe Weihnachten” from the writer of Random Poison
“Frohe Weihnachten,” or “Merry Christmas” as you would say in English. Alternatively, I could wish you many other things for all those other holidays that are celebrated around this time, but I”ll stick with this one today.
Also, I was asked by the Fairytale Traveler, Christa Thompson, to write a guest post about Christmas in Germany. So, Christmas it is.
Well, let me tell you a bit about how Christmas in Germany is celebrated around here. Even though you can buy all kinds of Christmas chocolate shortly after Halloween, it is quite common that festive decorations are not put up until the end of November.
Or more precisely, decorations are not put up before the last Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent. As this is quite a confusing description let me describe it a little differently.
Sundays of Advent
The Four Sundays Before Christmas are called the Sundays of Advent (Adventssontage). But before that, before we start lighting a candle on the Advent wreath each week, there is another Sunday that marks the end of the Lutheran Liturgical year (church year).
This one is called Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead) or Ewigkeitssonntag (Eternity Sunday) and is a day to remember the ones that passed away that year (and previous ones).
Before any light, any joyful decoration is displayed around the cities, another place will be decorated:
A common tradition in many regions of Germany is to prepare the graves for the winter. This is done by placing branches of pines or firs alongside wreath- and moss-sprays.
With this, the grave is not just prepared for frost and ice, but it is also – as I was told as a child – a symbolic way to create a blanket for the dead, so they would not freeze in the winter.
On Sunday itself people will visit the graves and commemorate their beloved ones and you will find the place of the dead quite full of the living.
Celebrating the Season
As the advent itself is a time of renewal and light people and cities will start to spread light throughout. The larger the town or city the more lights you will find.
Lights and fir combined into all kinds of variations: stars, candles, trees, bells, or any other form. Crossing above streets, surrounding buildings, or windows. Fairy lights (Lichterketten) refurbishing leafless trees. Turning the blunt streets into something to behold.
Households get their decorations as well with Schwibbogen (Schwibbbögen in plural), Christmas pyramids (Weihnachtspyramiden; as you can see in the picture), Nativity Scenes (Weihnachtskrippe), Nutcrackers (Nussknacker) and Incense Smokers (Räuchermännchen). But that is rarely done before the actual Christmas days.
Before the first Advent (short for First Sunday of Advent) small or large, traditional or modern Christmas markets turn their part of the town into a little winter wonderland.
All that is missing is the snow that rarely arrives before Christmas in Germany. The one thing you can find on any of those markets is definitely the hot spiced wine (Glühwein), each stand having a different one, their own unique brand.
For the children, there are sweet stands with a certain pastry that is known under different names throughout the regions. I know them as “Mutzen”, but I also know the names “Kreppelchen” (used in Saxony-Anhalt) or simply “Schmalzgebäck.”
Without having them and roasted almonds (or other nuts) as well as the spiced wine, it doesn’t really seem like you’ve actually been to a Christmas market.
While the children love opening their Advent calendars (Adventskalender) that count the days to the 24th, to get a little gift each day, they surely anticipate the 6th December a bit more than the other days. Then this day is (Saint) Nicolaus Day (Nikolaustag) where they get a little more than usual.
Stuffing Stockings or Boots
The tradition of this day is to clean your boots on the night of the 5th and put them outside. The next day, if you had been good, the boot would be filled with candies and/or presents. If you had not been good, you would find a birch or even a piece of coal (though no one does this part anymore).
This tradition of course sounds similar to the American Christmas tradition of hanging up your socks, but that is simply because the present giving of St. Nicolaus Day was postponed to the days we now know as Christmas. Still, in some countries, it is still celebrated.
There are many stories surrounding the real saint behind this day. The one I remember from my childhood is that the bishop of the town called Myra saw the orphaned children of his town suffer and decided to do them good by giving them presents while they were asleep.
With the saint also comes a companion. A rural creature called the Krampus in some places and just his servant as Knecht Ruprecht in others, both responsible for punishing the bad children with the birches.
But children rarely have to fear those two anymore, even though there are quite a lot of naughty ones around. 😉
FOOD! … Oh, the Food
Besides the time of light and reflectiveness, Christmas is also a time of food. I mentioned a couple of things you can find on the Christmas markets, but there are more:
Stollen ((Christ)Stollen )
Roasted apples (Bratäpfel)
Gingerbread (Pfefferkuchen or Lebkuchen)
Shortly before Christmas plates (the Christmas plates or “Weihnachtsteller” are filled with sweets, apples, nuts, oranges and whatever you’d like to add), the huge meals for the Christmas days include potato salad and bockwurst; raclette; occasionally carp or other fish; duck or goose.
The difference to other countries is probably that we celebrate on the 24th of December. Shortly before that, the Christmas tree will be decorated with all kinds of things ranging from tinsel, over Christmas baubles, up to chocolate, paper stars, and other things – though I have never heard of anyone adding a pickle.
In most Christian families the gift-giving isn’t done before the Christvesper, the (Lutheran) church service on Christmas Eve (Heiligabend; Holy Eve) itself.
At this service the old songs “Oh du Fröhliche”; “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (Silent Night); “O’ Tannenbaum” and others will be sung. But not just in church.
Afterward – or when it is simply time – the Christmas meal will be served. When everyone has had their share, the gift-giving will commence.
With smaller children there will be a Santa Claus, or Weihnachtsmann as we call him, to deliver the presents. (A few weeks ago I reflected on my experiences on this Guardian of Childhood).
Poems will be recited, songs will be sung, just to please this old man and get their gifts. Playing with their new toys for the rest of the evening the first and second Christmas day will then be spent with the closest family or close friends.
The time is filled with stories, laughter, and the obligatory Christmas stress. 😉
With this, I wish you all a Merry Christmas from Germany and hope you will have some quiet time with your loved ones.